Kenai City Council members James Baisden (left) and Deborah Sounart (right) listen as member Teea Winger (center) speaks in support of legislation opposing government COVID-19 mandates, during a meeting of the Kenai City Council on Wednesday, in Kenai.

Kenai City Council members James Baisden (left) and Deborah Sounart (right) listen as member Teea Winger (center) speaks in support of legislation opposing government COVID-19 mandates, during a meeting of the Kenai City Council on Wednesday, in Kenai.

Kenai council declares opposition to mask mandates

The statement does not change city code or supersede federal law.

The Kenai City Council on Wednesday stated their formal opposition to government mandates related to COVID-19.

In a unanimous vote, the council passed legislation stating that the council “opposes all government mandates requiring individuals to take COVID-19 vaccines or wear face coverings as a condition of employment, to be in public facilities including schools or for travel related purposes.”

The legislation, sponsored by council members James Baisden and Teea Winger, does not change laws, but rather is meant to make a statement about where the council stands on mandates.

“This statement will work towards our borough (and) this will work towards the state,” Baisden said. “We will have people talking about this tomorrow because the City of Kenai enjoys freedom more than we do mandates. I think it’s a big deal.”

There are currently no mask mandates in place in Kenai city facilities, except for at the Kenai Municipal Airport where masks are federally mandated. Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander said Thursday that any federal mandates supersede council action.

Baisden said he is not anti-vaccine and wants everybody to wear a mask and get vaccinated, but that he thinks mandates make it less likely for people to get vaccinated.

Winger, who co-sponsored the legislation, similarly said that the legislation sends an important message that the council favors choice related to COVID. She criticized what she called a lack of services provided by doctors who are “fearful” of contracting COVID, which she said infringes on people’s freedom of choice.

“It’s time to kind of, I guess, draw a line in the sand stating that this is going to be a freedom of choice for us all,” Winger said. “I respect your choice to get vaccinated and I respect your choice to wear a mask as it should be respected the other way around.”

The council heard testimony from several people, some of whom supported the resolution and others who did not. Those in support of the legislation said it sends an important message about freedom and liberty, while those in opposition said it was unnecessary and divisive.

Garrett Ennis, of Kenai, has been a vocal opponent of COVID-19 mandate and spoke in favor of the legislation Wednesday. Ennis called the resolution a step in the right direction, but said he wishes the language went further to say that the city “will not enforce” government COVID mandates.

“It’s important that we stand for natural, God-given rights, because as such, those cannot be abrogated by any type of government,” Ennis said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s federal (or) state — those rights are God-given and cannot be abrogated. For you guys to stand with this resolution I think is really good for the community.”

Margaret Gilman, a former principal of Nikiski North Star Elementary School, spoke in opposition to the resolution, which she said was unnecessary and contributes to the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic. She went on to point out that the City of Kenai does not currently require masks or vaccines to enter city facilities and that masking requirements at the Kenai Municipal Airport are federal.

“This resolution is adding to making the pandemic a political animal. And instead of making it about politics, we need to make it about people,” Gilman said. “Our community is divided, our country’s divided, our state is divided. Instead of passing this resolution, your Kenai City Council could do something to bring us together and say, ‘We’re not going to make this resolution when we have no reason to.’ Instead of doing things to divide us, I ask that you please do things to unite us as a community.”

Multiple council members said they did not view the legislation as divisive. Council member Glenese Pettey, for example, said she viewed the legislation as an “opportunity to focus on our personal liberties and personal freedoms.”

Council member Deborah Sounart said in contrast that she felt mandates, not the resolution, are divisive.

“What would be divisive to me would be if everybody was mandated to wear a mask, (or) to do the same thing, (or) if everybody was mandated to get an experimental gene therapy,” Sounart said. “That’s divisive because you’re forcing people who have in their own conscience … made a different choice. This resolution actually plays to both sides of the opinion because it gives freedom of choice to both sides.”

False claims have circulated that COVID-19 mRNA vaccines modify a human’s genes to treat the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has clearly stated that COVID-19 vaccines “do not affect or interact with” human DNA in any way.

Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel, who described himself as a civil libertarian, said he supports the legislation but that he doesn’t think governments should stop encouraging people to get vaccinated. Gabriel said he is “not ashamed to say” that he got vaccinated and experienced a breakthrough case of COVID at the end of October, symptoms for which were less severe because of his vaccination status.

“I wish we didn’t have this (resolution) in front of us because I think we’re doing a pretty good job,” Gabriel said. “I agree that it can be divisive to the community, because people might look at this as anti-vaccination legislation, even though it says right in there it’s not. But again, I think that people need to make their decisions on what they’re going to do.”

Ostrander at the meeting asked for clarification about whether department heads would still be allowed to require masks at individual city facilities if the legislation was passed. At the Kenai Senior Center, for example, the director temporarily instituted a mask mandate.

“As you know, the council is the one that tells administration what to do,” Ostrander said. “You set the policy of the city (and) I’m trying to get direction from council prior to the vote if this resolution would remove that ability for me to manage those facilities in that way going forward.”

Ostrander confirmed Thursday that management of city facilities still ultimately comes down to a conversation between him and department heads, but that the council has made clear that they do not want to see mask mandates in city facilities.

The legislation stating the council’s opposition to government mandates related to COVID-19 passed unanimously. Wednesday’s full meeting of the Kenai City Council can be viewed in full on the city’s YouTube channel.

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

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