Kenai City Council member James Baisden speaks in support of legislation opposing government COVID-19 mandates during a meeting of the Kenai City Council on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021 in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai City Council member James Baisden speaks in support of legislation opposing government COVID-19 mandates during a meeting of the Kenai City Council on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021 in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai council OKs grant funds for COVID leave, testing for city employees

The grant funds were made available under the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services

The City of Kenai will use up to $110,000 in state grant funds to pay for leave for city employees who test positive for COVID-19. The city council, which approved the move during its Wednesday night meeting, additionally approved up to $50,000 for testing for employees and immediate family members.

The money was made available to the city in spring 2021 under the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, according to the ordinance that accepted those funds. In all, about $327,000 was made available to the City of Kenai from the state to help implement a mobile COVID-19 vaccination unit, according to a memo from Kenai Fire Chief Tony Prior explaining the funds.

The legislation up for consideration by the council on Wednesday was amended by substitution to put caps on the amount of money that can be used for COVID leave and for testing, as well as to make the funds available retroactively to Jan. 20, 2022.

In making the additional leave available to city employees, the legislation cites recent high COVID transmission caused by new virus variants and says it is in the city’s best interest to “keep and promote a healthy working environment for all employees.”

“Addition of this leave will encourage employees to test for and stay home if they test positive for COVID-19, thereby protecting other City employees and the community from further spread,” the legislation says. “Due to the recent near exponential growth of the omicron variant and the increasing number of employees impacted by the virus, temporary COVID-19 employee leave will be provided retroactively to January 20, 2022.”

Prior wrote in a separate Jan. 12 memo that there is about $220,000 left of those funds that he does not expect the city to “get close” to spending. He went on to say that if half of city employees tested positive for COVID-19 and used 40 hours of leave, for example, the cost would be about $90,000.

“The health of our employees is vital to the daily operations of the City, as well as the health of community members that we serve,” Prior wrote. “One component of that health and wellness is making sure employees have adequate time to isolate, quarantine and recover, should they test positive for COVID-19. Another is making sure our employees are not passing this virus on to co-workers or the public they come in contact with.”

Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander said during Wednesday’s meeting that 22 of the city’s roughly 100 employees are currently in COVID protocols, nine of whom are COVID-positive and 13 who are close contacts. The city’s previous record, Ostrander said, that the most employees the city has previously had in COVID protocols was “eight or nine.”

“This is clearly an increase that we’ve seen here recently,” Ostrander said.

City council member James Baisden, who cast one of the two “no” votes on the ordinance, said that he supports helping city employees, but does not support the city’s current policy that requires city employees to mask if they are identified as a close contact or if they test positive and return to after a five-day quarantine.

“If close contact is going to continue to be an issue, we’re never going to get back to normal,” Baisden said.

Council member Teea Winger, who proposed the spending caps, also said she takes issue with the city’s masking policy for employees and would like to see it revisited. Winger also proposed making higher-quality masks, such as N95 or KN95 masks, available for city employees.

The ordinance passed by a vote of 5-2 with council members Baisden and Glenese Pettey voting in opposition. The council’s full meeting can be viewed on the City of Kenai’s YouTube channel.

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

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