The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly piloted new methods of conducting business from a distance at its meeting in the Borough Building in Soldotna on Tuesday night.
The borough asked the public not to attend the meeting in person to follow CDC guidelines for social distancing to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Instead, people were encouraged to listen to the meeting over public radio or watch a Facebook live feed and participate by submitting electronic comments, or, in one case, calling in to answer questions related to an ordinance.
People could still testify in person, and a few did, and were asked to sit at least six feet apart and sanitize the guest mic after speaking.
“Will you take a quick moment and wipe that down?”said assembly President Kelly Cooper.
The assembly modified its rules to allow members to participate in more meetings by phone, so they won’t have to be present in the future, either. The assembly extended the borough's disaster declaration for COVI-19, enacted March 16, for 90 days. The April 7 assembly meeting is canceled and the April 21 meeting, if it ends up being held, will be moved from Seward to Soldotna. Going forward, the assembly will only consider matters that are time-sensitive as long as the state of emergency is in effect.
Reports from South Peninsula Hospital and the school district were taken off the agenda. In lieu of those reports, Office of Emergency Management Incident Commander Dan Nelson gave an update on the borough’s response to the pandemic.
“This is a scary event,” he said. “We used the word unprecedented when we talked last summer about our disasters and the Swan Lake Fire. It now feels like maybe we minimized the use of the word unprecedented. We understand that with life being disrupted, with students home from school, with people being asked to remote work, with hand sanitizer and wipe precautions — all of these things are good mitigations and they’re good to prevent the spread but it can definitely be a scary thing.”
As a second-class borough, KPB doesn’t have health powers and can’t mandate actions like the dine-in restaurant closure enacted by the governor Tuesday. Nelson says that the borough has three roles in this situation. The first is coordination.
“We have a responsibility to serve the cities within the borough and provide resources and coordination between the cities and the state and, by extension, the federal government,” Nelson said. “So, for instance, if we find a need for certain protective equipment or other things that the cities and the borough both need, we’re the vessel that is able to access potentially some of the assistance from the state and the feds.”
The second is ensuring continuity of services. Borough and city offices are closed to the public but staff is still working and can communicate over email or the phone. Road maintenance, solid waste, water and sewer and other necessary municipal services are still happening.
“Our operations will continue. That’s one thing that I want to make sure everybody is very well aware of. If you have an emergency, if you call 911, the borough or the city call takers will answer that call. Fire and emergency services will still be responding. Talk to them about what you need. Our services are still here. The clerk, general government, all of those things are still running, just in a modified way, and that will not change,” Nelson said.
Finally, OEM is planning for the future.
“This has changed fundamentally our way of life in just a very short couple of weeks. As we look forward, how does that affect all of the residents of the Kenai Peninsula? How do we continue that mitigation? How do we plan for some of these things that may be unexpected?”
OEM is constantly monitoring and sharing up-to-date information with the public.
“The amount of information out there is changing rapidly. Some information that you may see is not accurate. Some might be taken out of context. Some might simply be outdated. Something three or four days ago may, in fact, not be accurate anymore,” Nelson said.
Nelson recommends adhering to all CDC and Alaska Department of Health and Social Services advisories. He does not recommend unnecessary bulk buying, as Alaska’s supply chain is still operating as usual.
“The port and other authorities have told us that we don’t expect to see any disruptions. The ships are still coming to the port of Alaska on schedule, which takes the vast majority of our goods, over 90 percent, into the state of Alaska,” Nelson said.
Listen to Nelson's entire presentation here:
Nelson gave a community update and answered questions via Facebook live at 6 p.m. March 18. That video is available on the KPB Alerts page.