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Soldotna votes against introducing mask mandate, opts for COVID education campaign

Elizabeth Earl/KDLL

The Soldotna City Council decided at Wednesday’s meeting not to hold a vote on a potential mask mandate, quashing the ordinance before it could reach a public hearing.

But dozens of Soldotna residents weighed in on the virus anyway during the comment period for another resolution, which established a citywide COVID-19 education campaign under the city manager. It passed unanimously at the meeting.

That resolution didn’t sit well with many attendees.

“We’re overburdened with the whole indoctrination going both ways, with masks and without masks," said Katherine Uei. "The public’s not retarded. We know that it’s personal choice and we know the risks.”

Like the hundreds of commenters who wrote in before the meeting, Uei said she fears government overreach from an education campaign or mask mandate.

City Manager Stephanie Queen says information will come from the state, CDC and local healthcare providers. But many said they don’t trust the city to provide impartial information. 

“This is just a very, very minor, minute thing that you guys are making a gigantic stink about," said Soldotna resident John Lansing Jr. "People walk around all day long, no masks, no problems. I hate to bring up the insensitive term of ‘natural selection,’ but it’s a real thing. You can’t save everybody. If you are high risk, stay home.” 

Some doubted that the hospital is full and that masks work. Three doctors from Central Peninsula Hospital called in to debunk that misinformation and talk about their experiences treating the virus.

“I just want to highlight it’s not just dying from COVID," said Chris Beaudoin, a hospitalist at CPH. "It’s also being hospitalized, it’s being institutionalized, it’s being a person that used to take care of themselves and can no longer.”

Beaudoin says he’s been working in the hospital throughout the pandemic and hasn’t gotten sick because he’s worn a mask and taken other precautions. He urged those listening to do the same.

Internist Alexa Rodin clarified that CPH is full, and that when hospitals fill up, there are more deaths. She said she wanted the city to pass a mask mandate.

“I worry that education at this point where we are at is just so insufficient to deal with what we are doing. And honestly, I have to say I’m pretty disappointed in what I saw today," she said. "I expected more from my local government.”

Several listeners said they liked the idea of more education coming from city officials. Kenai Peninsula Borough Assemblyman Tyson Cox supports an education campaign.

“Listening to the comments of other people, I do think education is probably a big deal and something we need to do because there is a lot of misinformation out there," he said. "Like the person before said, there’s a lot of information that people are getting from every source, but we can’t just be on our own information. That’s not the way this works.”

At Cox’s suggestion, the city council will send copies of its education plan to the borough, as well as the other city councils on the peninsula.

As the five-hour meeting wrapped, Jordan Chilson and Pamela Parker said they were disappointed the ordinance on mask-wearing couldn’t go to public hearing.

Chilson and Parker brought that ordinance forward and were the only councilmembers to vote “yes” on introducing it. Other council members agreed that wearing masks is important but said they worried such a conversation would lead to more division, or that that they didn’t see the point in enacting a mandate if none of the surrounding communities had mandates, too.

In his final comments, Chilson said the time has passed to educate and ask nicely.

“The fed has made this clear that they do not want to take any strong mitigation measures because those need to be decided at a state level," he said. "The states, in turn, say that those decisions need to be made at a local level, and that leaves us. No one’s willing to stand up and make the hard decisions if we don’t make them. They’re simply not going to happen.”

You can read the resolution that did pass, regarding COVID-19 education, on the city’s website.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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