Few borough assembly members wear masks in newly renovated chambers

Jan 7, 2021

Brent Hibbert, Bill Elam and Brent Johnson on the Zoom feed of Tuesday's meeting.
Credit Kenai Peninsula Borough Zoom

City and borough officials have asked members of the public to wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But at Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and Kenai City Council meetings this week, many officials did not take that suggestion.

Some members of local bodies wavered on their stances on mask wearing early in the pandemic, despite an overwhelming body of scientific research showing that masks do help mitigate the spread of the virus.

But by winter, when case counts were worsening, all peninsula cities and the borough put out messaging, including a joint resolution, to encourage mask wearing in public.

At the borough assembly meeting Tuesday, the first one the assembly had in person in months, few assembly members wore masks or face coverings.

The borough upgraded its Soldotna chambers to keep assembly and audience members socially distanced during meetings. There were also new sanitation measures in place and a reduced capacity in the facility.

The borough recommended, but did not mandate, that attendees wear masks at meetings when unable to social distance. That decision was made by Assembly President Brent Hibbert, Vice President Brent Johnson and borough staff. Assembly members had the opportunity to submit feedback on a potential plan via email.

Some representatives, like Tyson Cox, say they felt safe enough with those measures in place to not wear their masks during the meeting. He says he put on a mask when he got up from his seat. 

“I personally, I am in the middle," he said. "I do think we need to mitigate risk, and we can do that by wearing a mask when we need to, but I also believe there are times when we don’t need to. I feel that there’s probably people, as you could see, on the other end of it on assembly. There’s some that think we should wear them the whole time and then there’s some that say we don’t need to wear them at all. So I’m probably in the middle on that.” 

He said because the assembly members were constantly talking to one another, he didn’t think it made sense to keep putting on and taking off his mask. 

The CDC recommends wearing a mask when talking, since droplets can spread that way. It also says that masks and social distancing should be done in conjunction with one another, especially when indoors. Same goes for the state’s Department of Health and Social Services.

Assembly President Hibbert said he didn’t wear a mask because the borough’s advice was a suggestion and it was his personal preference not to do so.

Assembly Vice President Johnson did wear one. He said he feels responsible as a public official to set an example, though he would have worn one regardless because he feels it’s the safe thing to do.

“I just thought that because I’m a public official I would try to help get the word out that this is doable, it’s not that big of a problem to wear a mask, and it only can possibly do good," he said.

Member Willy Dunne also wore a mask throughout Tuesday’s meeting.

“I thought it was important to wear a mask for a number of reasons," he said. "I thought it was the responsible thing to do, it’s recommended by the governor and recommended by the CDC.”

It was also recommended by Dr. Kristin Mitchell of Central Peninsula Hospital at Tuesday’s meeting. She gave a presentation on the coronavirus vaccine and recommended people continue to follow precautions, like mask wearing.

The Kenai City Council is holding its meetings in person. Soldotna City Council meetings are still taking place over Zoom.