The Soldotna City Council’s three hours of debate Wednesday raised every nuance imaginable regarding the liability, practicality and morality of allowing large events on city property this summer but did not produce a policy going forward.
The city is struggling to decide how best to protect public health in preventing the spread of COVID-19 while still allowing commerce and community in the city’s most popular park.
In past summers, Wednesday night concerts, community festivals — pretty much any time there was music, a beer garden, food trucks and vendor tents, thousands of people crowded into Soldotna Creek Park.
This year, the Centers for Disease Control recommends limiting large events to 250 people, with proper signage, social distancing, hand sanitizing and personal protective equipment. But limiting entry to Soldotna Creek Park, in the heart of downtown, is difficult, as the perimeter is about as defensible as Swiss cheese.
Parks Director Andrew Carmichael warned the council to expect whatever attendance cap they might set to be exceeded.
“How do you track 1,000 people or (what) do you say to the second 700 people that show up on Wednesday, because all they heard was the blurb that it was out — ‘Wednesday music is happening.’ That’s a guaranteed 2,000 people with weather like this — boom,” he said. “… We saw 80 percent capacity in our campgrounds over Memorial Day because Alaskans could get out.”
Whose responsibility is it to make sure capacity limits aren’t exceeded, that people aren’t standing too close together and they’re otherwise practicing safe behaviors? One idea was to have event organizers sign a liability waiver and submit a COVID-19 hazard mitigation plan that would have to be approved by the council before an event would be allowed.
Councilman Dave Carey was not a fan of that idea. Not only would waiting on council meetings potentially hold up an event, it would also make the council have to be the bad guys if an event were turned down.
“You’re talking about livelihood, people being able to make money or not. A lot of people need something to yell at, be mad at, and, boy, it could be this council. I’ve been to those meetings where it was filled every time,” Carey said. “... So I’ll just say, I’m a coward. I do not want the council to have to go through each interest, telling me how they have to get approved, because I think it will get very ugly.”
Another idea was to institute a blanket policy for all events in the park, such as capping attendance at 100 or 250. In one sense, that would be fair to everyone and it would give event organizers a policy to plan around.
That would mean the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce’s Music in the Park series would not be allowed and the already-operating Wednesday Market would be forced to shut down or relocate, since it regularly draws more than 250 people. As City Manager Stephanie Queen pointed out, not all events are created equal, and she advocated for letting the market continue.
“It’s not just about the numbers,” Queen said. “A thousand people berry picking in Denali Park is safe but 10 people crowded together in that phone booth is very dangerous. So when we think about the numbers, it’s certainly really helpful, but it also matters all the other nuanced other details. So, from my perspective, it wouldn’t be an exception, it’s a structurally different type of event than a concert. But concerts, beer gardens are just physically different than vendor booths.”
That being said, council members who stopped by this week’s Wednesday Market were dismayed to see in the neighborhood of 500 people, many of whom were clumped together, not wearing masks and not using the provided hand sanitization stations.
Councilman Justin Ruffridge says the city can’t enforce safe behavior. But it can decide to not provide a venue for unsafe gatherings.
“If there’s a (private) entity that wishes to do something outside of the city or something along those lines, that is within their right to do so and the right of people to attend,” Ruffridge said. “But when it comes to the point of a city hosting an event or allowing an event to occur on public property, there’s a whole lot of things that go along with that event. There’s an amount of city involvement, an amount of employee involvement, amount of liability.”
The council was able to come to a consensus on events at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex — no more than 250 people allowed inside at any given time. The council did not agree on what to do at Soldotna Creek Park, leaving the administration to develop a policy. Queen didn’t announce what that would be during the meeting and did not return a call seeking comment since the meeting. But she did say the community deserves clarity on a policy soon.