On the Frontlines: Kirkland Mayor Penny Sweet Talks COVID-19 Response and Building Community

Mayor Penny Sweet never expected that in her first year as mayor of Kirkland, Washington she would be leading her community through a global pandemic. The former health administrator and small business owner has lived in Kirkland, a first-tier suburb on the outskirts of Seattle, since 1985. The first novel coronavirus case in the United States was discovered at a long-term care facility in the city of Kirkland.

The quiet and close-knit community became the epicenter of the U.S. fight against COVID-19. In this short Q&A, Mayor Sweet shares her experience working across government to protect citizens, while responding to novel coronavirus.

As one of the first municipalities to confront COVID-19 in the country, your city is further ahead than many of our NLC members. Tell us, how is Kirkland doing at this moment.

While no city government ever wants to be at the epicenter of a pandemic, with 20/20 hindsight we are grateful for the opportunity to be able to share what we’ve learned with other cities across the country and we have been doing just that.

Thankfully, the city had made significant investments in our emergency operations over the last few years that helped us to have the right tools and training in place to manage this incident.

At this point, I believe that we’ve found a level of stability in our ongoing operations as well as in our direct response to COVID-19. Our emergency operations center is still activated, but we’ve been able to focus on continuing to provide needed services to our residents while protecting the health of our staff.

Can you share your process for arriving at your first two actions as mayor when you learned that there were positive cases of COVID-19 in your city?

The City of Kirkland is a Council-Manager form of government. So, in this situation, my primary roles as mayor was to assist our staff by advocating for support from elected officials at the County, State and Federal level, and to demonstrate leadership to our community. I was in very close communication with our City Manager Kurt Triplett from the very beginning of our becoming aware of the outbreak at the skilled nursing facility.

The strong relationships among the Councilmembers, and between the Council and City staff, allowed me to focus on messaging to our community that they needed to prepare, but not panic, and it allowed me to use my voice to make sure we had the supplies and support we needed so that staff could manage the situation on the ground.

What has been the response from residents to the efforts you have had to take as mayor?

The Kirkland community has been amazing throughout this crisis. They have been willing to make sacrifices to stay home and stay healthy. Additionally, our residents have been so willing to help support our first responders, support our local businesses, and support those in our community that are most vulnerable. I’m so proud of the Kirkland community.

Early indicators are there that this crisis will have a significant economic impact. What impact on the city finances do you expect?

I think it is accurate to say that this will have a significant economic impact at all levels, from home to business to government. As a government, we will need to understand and take advantage of the various state and federal relief packages that are coming our way.

We already have staff working on understanding the best paths for us to take.  We are a city that went into this crisis with very good reserves but clearly not nearly enough. We have plans already in place to help support, to a degree, the economic recovery of our business community. We know that helping families and businesses recover is key to minimizing the impact on city finances.

It is difficult to predict the extent of the impact right now because we still don’t have enough information to know when it will be safe to restart our economic engines. However, we’re making sure that we are laying the groundwork now for when the time comes to get going again.

How do you expect this crisis to affect how the City of Kirkland operates and its relationship with residents and other stakeholders?

I sincerely believe that this crisis has strengthened our relationship with our residents and other stakeholders. I spoke with a Sound Transit official earlier today and she said when she first heard that we had COVID-19 patients in a convalescent care center, she shared with a colleague that it couldn’t happen in a better city.  I believe that the trust we’ve built through our response will help us recover from this and help us prepare for any future challenges.

People who live and work in Kirkland love it here and with the amount of support we are seeing for restaurants in particular, we will only be better for it.  Many streets have trees that are decorated with big blue bows, particularly at Life Care Center and other convalescent centers, and there are yard signs all over the place that say HOPE! #wegotthiskirkland

MayorPennySweetAbout the Author: Mayor Penny Sweet is Mayor of Kirkland, Washington. She began her first term on the Kirkland City Council in January 2010. She served as Deputy Mayor from 2010-2011, and 2014-2015. The Kirkland City Council selected Councilmember Penny Sweet to serve as Mayor for the remainder of 2019 at their January 2 meeting.  She has lived in Kirkland since 1985 and served as the Chair of the Market Neighborhood Association from 2007–2009