Governor again appeals to local authority on some COVID matters

Nov 12, 2020

A screenshot from Gov. Dunleavy's emergency message.

In an emergency message today, Gov. Mike Dunleavy urged Alaskans to exercise caution to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Specifically, he called on cities to do some of the heavy lifting.

“If you own a business that can operate remotely, send your employees home,” he said. “I’m urging municipalities to take similar action, and protect your workforce and your communities.”

It’s not the first time the governor has handed down authority to local governments. The Kenai Peninsula Borough has said repeatedly that it does not have the power to institute a mask mandate. On the Kenai Peninsula, Kenai, Soldotna and Seward all do.

Those cities and Homer signed onto a joint resolution earlier this fall that encourages following precautions. But city officials are largely leaving decisions about requirements to businesses and individuals. 

“I would like to see some of the local businesses start maybe going back to their own mask requirements,” said Soldotna Mayor Paul Whitney.

Many businesses in Kenai and Soldotna required masks in the early stages of the pandemic, and several still do. But across the central peninsula, mask compliance is low, even at high-risk businesses like bars and gyms

“One of the issues with a mandate to wear masks inside the city is one side of the street’s inside the city, and the other side of the street’s not,” Whitney said. “Or the one business next door is outside the city. It would be better if there was going to be a mandate, it be a statewide mandate. That way it’s in effect for everyone.”

Starting Friday, the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex and Soldotna Public Library will be closed to the public, although the latter will continue to offer curbside pick-up service. Masks will be required in the front lobbies of Soldotna City Hall and the Soldotna Police Department.

City officials agree that a big problem with a city-wide mandate would be enforcement. Whitney said he thinks the state has more resources to enforce compliance, and that he thinks a mandate would mean more coming from the state.

Justin Ruffridge, who owns Soldotna Professional Pharmacy and sits on the Soldotna City Council, said he worries about rising case numbers and would like to see people exercise more caution.

There are currently 938 active cases on the peninsula. On Tuesday, the borough reported 66 new cases — a daily record. Those numbers are likely even higher due to backlogs in data entry.

But Ruffridge said he thinks people currently have a low tolerance for listening to the government.

“We have seen time and time and time again, that if you demand that it happens, it almost has the opposite effects,” he said. “And people take it as a point of pride to not do what you ask.”

He thinks it would be more effective for people to hear from healthcare professionals who are working on the ground about how their lives have been impacted by the virus.

“This has been a really tough week, honestly,” he said. “There is just a growing sense that the level of misinformation that people have is so great, that it’s a hurdle that you’re not going to overcome. I would say the only way to overcome it would actually be, the government probably actually needs to stay silent. And it needs to be the healthcare team. And not just Dr. Zink.”

Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel said that positive messaging about preventing the spread of the virus might be more effective than a mandate. He thinks as the numbers go up, people are being more cognizant of their behaviors.

“In my mind, anyway, if this gets totally out of control, where we’re overwhelming our hospitals, folks have to ask themselves, are they willing at that point to be subjected to lockdowns where businesses are shut down, and those sorts of scenarios,” he said.

Such an action would have to clear the Kenai City Council. This summer, the council voted to refer to COVID-19 as a “health emergency” instead of a “pandemic.”

Gabriel said he doesn’t think the current situation necessitates a lockdown.

“Are we in an extreme dyer circumstance right now? No, probably not because although our cases are going up, which is a concern, the strain on our hospital doesn’t seem to be that bad,” he said. “If that changes, you gotta say, ‘What’s best for the community?’”

Central Peninsula Hospital currently has six active COVID-19 cases, and has filled 45 out of 49 beds. There are currently 76 staff members in quarantine because they have the virus or were exposed to someone who does. 

That includes staff at Heritage Place, an eldercare facility operated by the hospital that recently saw an outbreak of cases.