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Alaska communities enact a flurry of measures to try to curb record COVID-19 case surge

There is a trend of stricter measures being implemented off the road system
Juneau City Hall
Juneau City Hall(KTUU)
Published: Sep. 30, 2021 at 8:07 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Local governments across Alaska have been implementing or reimplementing a flurry of COVID-19 mitigation measures to try to curb a record case surge.

Mayor Sharon Scheidt of the City of Valdez issued a disaster declaration on Tuesday with Anchorage hospitals stretched to breaking point. She spoke emotionally after a Valdez resident died with the virus earlier in the week.

The Valdez City Council will debate whether to extend the disaster declaration beyond a seven-day limit on Thursday evening. It will also debate whether to reimplement a mask mandate after it was rescinded in May.

The Sitka Assembly extended its face mask mandate indoors in public on Tuesday through March 22. Violators face a $50 civil fine.

An emergency meeting saw sharp divides between residents who supported the mandate to protect public health and those who believed it would be ineffective or were concerned about individual rights.

The Juneau Assembly heard similar debates. It reimplemented civil penalties on Wednesday for people who don’t follow the city’s existing mask mandate. Residents face a $25 fine, but there could be stiffer penalties for businesses if their employees don’t follow the rules.

Robert Barr, Juneau’s deputy city manager, said the reintroduction of penalties should help ensure compliance, but he said no fines were issued when penalties were in place earlier in the pandemic. Capacity limits are also in place at bars and restaurants in Juneau.

According to data from the New York Times, Kodiak Island Borough has the highest recent case rate for any county across the United States. Its rate is over six times higher than the national average.

Kodiak reimplemented a face mask mandate in late August.

“We have 270 cases currently classified as active here in Kodiak, it’s a very high number, alarming really,” said Mike Tvenge, head of the emergency operations center, on Thursday.

He said there are no plans to issue stricter mitigation efforts like mandatory capacity limits at bars and restaurants. He said some are already doing that on their own. There are hopes masking will be enough to reduce Kodiak’s case rate.

The Anchorage Assembly and Mayor Dave Bronson have sparred over whether to reimplement a citywide mask mandate. Volatile debates have stretched over two days of meetings this week with a third taking place Thursday evening.

Nils Andreassen, head of the Alaska Municipal League, said those debates echo deep divides among Alaska communities about how to respond to the pandemic. Some are focused on keeping businesses and schools open and are concerned about infringing on rights — others believe mandates can protect public health.

“While all local governments are taking the crisis seriously, how they respond appears to be different between remote and island communities compared to those on the road system,” Andreassen said.

Most Southeast island communities have mitigation measures in places and so do some remote villages in Northwest Alaska.

Some, like Kiana, have recently issued mask mandates. Others, like Nome, are strongly urging them to be worn in public. The North Slope Borough has reintroduced travel and quarantine restrictions which are being seen again across rural Alaska.

Bethel is mandating vaccinations for all city employees. Cordova has been requiring vaccinations or weekly testing for city staff.

Many communities on the road system have no mandates in place. Soldotna is one of the exceptions, requiring face masks in city buildings.

Some boroughs are also not able to issue mandates as they don’t have health powers. That’s a challenge that has existed since COVID-19 hit Alaska last year. But it doesn’t mean those boroughs aren’t doing anything. Andreassen said there is work being done with the state health department to issue information and recommendations following clear guidance added recently to a public health order.

Two weeks ago, the Alaska Municipal League sent a letter to Commissioner Adam Crum of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. It had a long list of requests, including that a disaster declaration be considered if public health measures could not be implemented in other ways.

Clinton Bennett, a spokesperson for the department, said by email that the majority of AML’s concerns have been addressed in the past two weeks through testimonies before the Legislature and an agreement to bring in out-of-state health care workers.

“Our primary focus at this time is supporting the healthcare system and communities as they respond to the current surge of COVID-19 cases,” Bennett said about the state’s efforts.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has declined to issue a new statewide COVID-19 disaster declaration with tougher mandates and has no plans to do so. His office says those decisions should be made at the local level.

Twenty-seven states have disaster declarations in place and 23 have let them expire, according to data from the National Academy for State Health Policy.

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