Emergency shelters open as dual health crises envelop King County

The smoke shrouding our region has forced the city of Seattle to close all public parks through the weekend and everyone is urged to stay indoors.

Health officials say we’re in midst of a dual crisis; first the pandemic, and now dangerous air quality conditions caused by the wildfire smoke. 

City officials say while mitigating the risks of COVID-19 requires social distancing, the fine particulates in the wildfire smoke poses an even greater threat to those with underlying health conditions. That’s the reasoning Seattle and King County leaders say they opened a number of emergency shelters. 

Health officials are also reaching out to businesses owners to make sure they are aware of the department’s guidance.

“The air isn’t great but we’ve got a roof over our heads,” said Gina Tolentino, co-owner of Bar Del Corso restaurant in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

She says her family has been crawling out of a pandemic crisis only to now face unhealthy smoke filling the skies.

“If it’s anything like California was looking like a few days ago, no one wants to be in that,” she said.

A thick blanket of smoke from Oregon and California wildfires has smothered Puget Sound. 

The haze chokes neighborhoods and is yet one more challenge thrown Tolentino’s way this chaotic year and she wonders if customers will show up.

“People are concerned about their health,” she said, “And then COVID, it’s a lung thing right?”

“Almost the same population that is at most risk of the virus is also most vulnerable of the smoke,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan during a Friday morning press conference.

The air quality registered from unhealthy to very unhealthy and could get worse this weekend.  

The city and county have opened several shelters to protect those experiencing homelessness who also suffer underlying health conditions.

Billed as a ‘healthy air center’ located in SoDo, officials say the facility has powerful air filtration systems. But COVID-19 safety protocols mean capacity can only serve a fraction of those unhoused, all while the threat of new wildfires isn’t over.

“Any fire at this point in time poses a significant risk because of the smoke and flammable conditions this side of the mountains,” Durkan said.

“Keeping the windows closed all the time and closing the ventilation system,” said Mariajosé Barrera, owner of Mosé Auto.

But if you do have to drive over the next few days, mechanics say changing out your car’s interior filter can help keep out the dangerous smoke and make sure the ventilation in your car is set to recirculate the air.

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources warned most counties across the state share very high or extreme risk of wildfire.

The emergency shelters opened in Seattle, and the city’s park closures, could last through the beginning of next week.