On March 6, at 2:43 p.m., the health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County, the hardest-hit region in the first state to be slammed by COVID-19, sent an email to a half-dozen colleagues, saying, “I want to cancel large group gatherings now.”
The county’s numbers — 10 known deaths and nearly 60 confirmed cases as of late morning — were bad and getting worse. Many local events had already been called off for fear of spreading the coronavirus. Oyster Fest. The Puget Sound Puppetry Festival. A Women’s Day speaker series at the Gates Foundation. King County had ordered a stop to in-person government meetings unless they were considered essential.
The health officer, Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, was to the Seattle area what Anthony Fauci would become for the country, the doctor at the microphone, dispensing guidance. Under Washington law, Duchin also had authority to make his wish an order.
Duchin sent his email 28 hours before the Seattle Sounders, defending MLS champions and one of the league’s biggest draws, were to host a match at CenturyLink Field. No event in the coming days would generate a gathering to compare. The game would draw people from across the Puget Sound area, and maybe beyond.
In the end, the match went on. Two days after the public health department wrote on Facebook, “We are making a recommendation to postpone or cancel events greater than 10-50 people,” officials in King County allowed a soccer match to be held with 33,000 fans, squeezed together.
How that happened is captured in hundreds of pages of emails exchanged among federal, state and local officials, as well as executives from the Sounders, Seahawks, Mariners and XFL Dragons. Those records, obtained by ProPublica and The Seattle Times, show how one meeting would beget another, one email would beget a dozen more, all while the virus was taking rapid hold.