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Kenai council takes stance against mandates while Soldotna makes masks optional in city buildings

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Kenai City Council members unanimously voted last night to oppose vaccine and mask mandates from the government — another resolution against mandates that local officials said takes a stance but which has no teeth.

The resolution said the council opposes mandates “requiring individuals to take COVID-19 vaccines or wear face coverings to be in public facilities, including schools or for travel-related purposes.”

Co-sponsor James Baisden, a member of the council who has been a vocal opponent of masking in Kenai Peninsula schools, said he knows resolutions have no backing from the law.

But he thinks a statement, alone, is powerful.

“We will have people talking about this tomorrow because the city of Kenai enjoys freedom more than we do mandates," Baisden said. "I think it’s a big deal. It starts at the local level.”

The resolution garnered support from a small, vocal group that has protested vaccine requirements for federal workers and spoken out at other local meetings.

A handful of critics said the resolution is divisive and ineffective. Even if the legislation could change the rules, there are no vaccine or mask requirements for public buildings in Kenai besides the Kenai Municipal Airport — where masks are federally mandated.

City Manager Paul Ostrander is still able to require masks in city buildings if he chooses, including the senior center and library. The senior center had a mask mandate this fall, as cases rose. Now, masks are recommended.

The resolution also refers to opposition to mask requirements in schools. But, again, the city cannot dictate whether the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District requires them.

Kenai isn’t the first municipality to take a stance against mandates, even ones that don’t exist. 

In November, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly came out with a resolution opposing vaccine mandates. That was before any federal mandates for vaccines in workplaces were in motion — and before the vaccine rolled out altogether.

At another assembly meeting this fall, a resolution condemning vaccine mandates generated hours of conversation about unproven COVID-19 treatments. The resolution was introduced by Mayor Charlie Pierce and said the assembly opposed directives from the government that would exclude unvaccinated people.

It was ultimately tabled. That resolution, like this one, wouldn’t have teeth. 

The city of Soldotna has not passed a resolution of that type. But COVID-19 was on the agenda at last night’s Soldotna City Council’s meeting. 

The council voted to remove the mask requirement for Soldotna’s public buildings, introduced again this summer, to curb the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19. 

Instead, masks are now “recommended” in facilities. Council members say that’s because COVID-19 cases are down from their fall peak, both across the Kenai Peninsula and Alaska.

Officials say they’re not yet sure how the new omicron variant of the coronavirus will impact those numbers. Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink said it’s important to stay vigilant as researchers learn more about it.

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