The sign outside Soldotna City Hall is seen here on July 16, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

The sign outside Soldotna City Hall is seen here on July 16, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Citing virus, Soldotna adjusts operations

The changes are effective as of 7 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 13

The City of Soldotna updated city facility operations, effective at 7 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 13 in response to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s emergency alert addressing the rapid spread of COVID-19 across the state. Impacted facilities include the Soldotna Public Library, the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, Soldotna City Hall and the Soldotna Police Department.

Beginning Friday morning, the Soldotna Public Library will be closed to the public. Library staff will continue to serve patrons via curbside pickup, but all in-person scheduled programs and activities are canceled until further notice.

The Soldotna Regional Sports Complex is closed to the public for all scheduled programs, events and activities until further notice. Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen said during Wednesday night’s Soldotna City Council meeting that part of the reason the sports center is closing so quickly is because a tournament was scheduled to take place there this weekend.

“One of the challenges of the decision we made today was pertaining to the fact that there was about to be a large tournament that was scheduled to start at 7 a.m. [Friday],” Queen said. “It was only last month where the Termination Dust Tournament in Anchorage resulted in a breakout of cases — this tournament would have been larger than that.”

Council member Jordan Chilson said that while he supported the changes, he thinks the city needs to reevaluate their policies at the sports complex when the decision is made to reopen it. Chilson said he made a point of going to the sports complex to see how it was operating and found it to be “very discouraging” in light of the community’s high case counts.

“I saw a lot of large groups over there with very few people masking, if any at all, congregating in close groups,” Chilson said. “There was even a night I went over there and the city employee at the front desk wasn’t even wearing his mask.”

Council member Justin Ruffridge, who also owns and operates Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, said that while he agrees the library and sports center closures probably need to happen, those are not the places where new COVID-19 cases are coming from. Instead, Ruffridge said, cases are appearing as people in the community decide to gather in places where mitigation protocols are not being followed, like churches and bars.

Ruffridge said that while the state was doing better with case numbers earlier in the year, there were also a lot of mitigation efforts put in place, such as travel mandates, and his day-to-day operations have shown him that COVID-19 messaging is not being communicated clearly to the public.

“This virus does not show up like an anvil from the sky in Looney Tunes,” Ruffridge said. “It shows up silently, easily, like a cold — it comes like a cold. You wake up in the morning with a stuffy nose and a sore throat and then you make the decision to still have a dinner party, to still go out and hang out with your friends, go to the bar, go to church. That’s where our spread is happening.”

Council member Dave Carey, who said he recently recovered from COVID-19, said the virus is “very real” and made him feel “unable to do almost anything.” Carey, who said it has almost been one year since he stopped smoking, said he thinks his sickness would have been worse if he was still smoking like he used to and urged others to stop smoking as well.

“I’m just very pleased to be alive. I’m pleased to be part of the council and I’m very pleased that we’re doing more,” Carey said, adding that he would be supportive of taking further action if proposed.

Soldotna Mayor Paul Whitney said that he recently participated in a Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor’s meeting via teleconference with a member of Gov. Dunleavy’s staff, who Whitney said asked them where their cities were doing in regards to mask mandates.

“I believe if mandatory mask wearing is going to be effective it has to be statewide — everybody has to do it,” Whitney said. “You just can’t go from one town to another and switch your whole style.”

Council member Pamela Parker pushed back at the idea that a mask mandate would only be effective if it was statewide.

“I don’t think we need to wait on the governor to protect the health and safety of our community members. I think that we can 100% be the leaders in that area,” Parker said. “I don’t think it’s weird that one city to another has different policies when it comes to masking up when you’re in our community, just like we have different policies for other aspects of our lives.”

Lisa Parker, who said she finds the number of new cases being reported on the central peninsula alarming, emphasized personal responsibility in the community and said the council should be doing more than what the governor recommended.

“I will be reaching out to the city manager and Mayor Whitney and brainstorming some ideas,” Lisa Parker said. “It’s not coming from the governor — he wants us to hunker down, wear masks, maintain social distance — we have to do a little bit more.”

The Soldotna City Hall lobby will be open for front counter services. Masks will be required for any member of the public inside of City Hall and will be made available to anyone who needs one, while supplies last. In-person meetings with city staff are not being scheduled. For assistance with city business, people are encouraged to call City Hall at 907-262-9107.

The Soldotna Police Department lobby will remain open to the public, but masks are required.

The City of Kenai announced similar COVID-19-related closures on Friday.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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