Over the last six months, the Port of Seattle and all responsible governments have been laser focused on COVID-19 response and recovery and the resulting economic turmoil. Despite a near-complete lack of guidance on the Federal level and in the absence of a cohesive national pandemic response strategy for airports or other jurisdictions, the Port has taken it upon ourselves to move ahead in this vacuum. We are collaborating closely and regularly with other airports; public health officials; and governments at the State, local, and regional level, all in the interest of public health. The safety of the public and our staff is job number one and our role in an economic recovery is central to our mission. Needless to say, it’s COVID, COVID, COVID, all the time here, but it’s far from the only thing that’s going on at the Port.
Cleaning House on Structural Racism
In addition to COVID-19, the Port of Seattle is taking a hard look at ourselves. In September, I will introduce a motion that formally analyzes every nook and cranny of the organization, hunting down signs of structural racism or discrimination. The motion will build upon the equity efforts by the previous commission, findings from our Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and will lean heavily on staff input from recent round tables and town halls. In hiring Bookda Gheisar and establishing the Office of Equity and Inclusion last year, it seems like the Port anticipated the goals of Black Lives Matter and other groups advocating for justice. This process is important and much overdue.
Police Should Represent Community Values
The Commission is taking another hard look at our own police force. We felt we needed to respond to national concern over the tragic murder of George Floyd and the protests on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in our region. While our police have largely performed admirably in some of the most challenging situations, we are working to ensure that they continue to be a source of pride and represent the values of our community. This month the commission voted unanimously to adopt a motion to establish a Commission Task Force on Port Policing and Civil Rights. The task force will lead a comprehensive assessment of the Port’s Police Department to ensure alignment with the highest national standards and best practices related to policing.
COVID-19 Impacts Small Businesses
At the onset of COVID-19, the number of travelers at SEA Airport declined from an average of about 50,000 passengers per day to about 2,000. The dramatic loss of customers had a devastating effect on the businesses at the airport.
In recent years, the Port has made great strides in our efforts to promote small and minority businesses. We were finally starting to show success in diversifying our dining and retail businesses. The food was also getting much better!
When COVID-19 hit, the small businesses we worked so hard to attract instantly became the ones the most vulnerable to the economic downturn. There were cries for help from nearly all the lease holders, not just at the airport, but from properties across the Port. But how to help?
The challenge we faced as a public organization was how to support businesses in a way that wasn’t a gift of public funds. The State Constitution is very clear about what we can and can’t do with taxpayers’ money and we take that seriously. Also, as a public economic development agency, we don’t have bottomless pockets. With predicted revenue declines from airlines, the cancellation of the cruise season and pleas for help from our lease holders, we had limited options. We are grateful to our federal delegation for their support in early bills supporting airports. Without this injection of funds, our situation would have been even more dire and the region’s economy would have seen more impact.
Federal Visibility on FlyHealthy
A bright spot on the federal COVID-19 response has been from our Congressional Delegation. Both U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell have been especially engaged as well as our Puget Sound-area House members. Last month, I joined an airport tour for U.S. Representative Rick Larsen to demonstrate all the efforts the Port is making to keep our airport safe and clean for employees and the traveling public. The Port’s FlyHealthy@SEA campaign is a curb-to-jet program that includes mandatory masks, multitudes of hand sanitizers stations, plexiglass at all counters, and dramatic increases in janitorial cleaning. As part of the tour, Representative Larsen boarded an Alaska airlines jet and observed everything they are doing to enhance safety, walked with us through the terminal, and heard about our passenger temperature screening pilot program. The Port of Seattle is doing an amazing job with FlyHealthy@SEA locally, but COVID-19 is a problem that needs a national solution. Our Congressional delegation gets that and is a great partner to restore confidence in air travel.