The deadline for the Biden Administration’s vaccine mandate for an estimated 3.5 million federal workers is today. On the Kenai Peninsula, that mandate extends to employees of the Federal Aviation Administration, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and active military, among others.
This weekend, demonstrators in Kenai and Soldotna braved subzero temperatures to protest against the mandate and others, which they said violate their rights to medical liberty.
Dave Saldivar is an employee with the federal government. He spoke to a crowd of about 25 people on the corner of the Kenai Spur Highway and Main Street Loop on Saturday.
“I’m being forced into early retirement by my own hand because I won’t take a jab," he said. "And I think everybody has to stand up to that and say, ‘What do you want out of your life? Do you want to just surrender to it? Surrender to somebody telling you what to do and what you can put in your body?'”
The Biden Administration said the federal mandate is a step toward curbing the spread of the contagious Delta variant.
Jeff Zients, COVID-19 response coordinator for the White House, said about 90 percent of employees have gotten vaccinated. An additional 5 percent have submitted requests for medical and religious exemptions.
“And this is continuing to build," he said at a Monday briefing. "The deadline is this evening and, even once the deadline passes, as we’ve talked about, it’s not a cliff, it’s not an endpoint. We’ll continue to work with people, answer their questions, provide counseling and education and get more and more people vaccinated.”
He said the high rate of compliance is proof that vaccine requirements work and boost vaccination rates.
Protesters this weekend didn’t see it that way. Saldivar said he knows it might be a while until his employment would be terminated. But he wants to stand up for the opportunity to make a choice. That refrain has been a recurring one at other local protests and city council and borough assembly meetings.
Garrett Ennis has testified at some of those meetings. On Saturday, he was watching footage from other protests around the world on Telegram, an app that allows private, encrypted messaging and has become popular on the far right.
“I don’t trust the government, I don’t trust Big Pharma, and I don’t trust a lot of what’s going on," he said. "And, be mindful, I’ve been kind of focused on what’s going on since 9/11. And I’ve been a truth-seeker ever since.”
This weekend, anti-mandate protesters in Soldotna were met with a small group of counter-demonstrators.
That group, standing a few yards away, held signs sporting messages, like, “We Thank You, Healthcare Heroes” and “You Make a Difference.”
“Sometimes, when they look out the windows, it’s good to see something positive about what you’re doing. So that’s my motivation," said Susie Smalley, an organizer with Many Voices, a local advocacy group.
Smalley said Many Voices organized the event in response to the other protest. They wanted to show gratitude for the healthcare workers at Central Peninsula Hospital.
“This is a positive thing, not an anti-anything," she said. "We’re just trying to support them. And Justin [Ruffridge] and the pharmacy down there, who’s done a yeoman’s job, whatever that means.”
John Kasukonis is a former emergency room doctor. He retired from Central Peninsula Hospital right before COVID-19.
“It really makes me sad, and angry, to see what they’re going through with people not understanding — just get an immunization," he said. "Wear your mask when you’re in a group, you know?”
He said it’s demoralizing for doctors to see so much pushback to COVID-19 prevention measures. And he said in his nearly 40 years of experience in the emergency room, he doesn't remember a time when medicine was so politicized.
“And the other thing I don’t understand is a lot of the folks that are on the other side of this issue are ex-military," he said. "I mean, they stood in line to get their shots, and that was part of what they did as military guys to stand up for the country, sign up for the Constitution.”
That “other side” sees Biden’s mandates as "medical tyranny."
At the anti-mandate protest, Ennis read a short piece he wrote, called “Truth Seeker.” It ended with a call to action.
“May wisdom and courage be by our side as we stand on the edge of chaos, awakening souls from their slumber and societal suicide," he read.
He encouraged people to bring friends to the next march, for even bigger turnout.
The federal vaccine mandate extends to federally contracted employees, as well, though the deadline for that requirement is Jan. 4. Alaska and several other states filed a lawsuit against the Biden Administration over that mandate last month.
A separate order requires employees of Central Peninsula Hospital to be fully vaccinated by January, as well. Another mandate, for employees at companies of 100 employees or more, is on pause in the face of court challenges.