Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to correct the name of Cece Strongheart and to clarify that she knits hats and scarves.
Soldotna’s Wednesday Market is only two weeks into the 2020 season, and already hundreds of Kenai Peninsula residents have flocked to Soldotna Creek Park to buy fresh produce and handmade crafts from their favorite local vendors.
CeCe Strongheart, who is autistic and knits hats and scarves to sell at the market, had a new line of hats on display inspired by popular characters and monsters from movies and television. Her mother, Ann, was also selling several short-sleeved kuspuks that she had made to beat the summer heat.
Kenai Kombucha owners Devon and Brian Gonzalez were set up at the park for the second week in a row after having to temporarily shut their doors in March. They had a half-dozen of their popular kombucha flavors on tap, as well as plenty of stickers, T-shirts and other merchandise for sale.
Las Vegas magician Jungle Josh was also in the park for his second week, performing sleight-of-hand tricks for curious passersby.
The Wednesday Market is seen by many as a return to normalcy after the past several months. Alaska still has a number of health mandates in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including asking all out-of-state visitors to get tested for the disease before traveling. Many of the original mandates that forced businesses to close their doors and limited travel around the state have since been lifted.
When it comes to wearing a mask, the State of Alaska, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization all encourage the use of masks in public places, as research suggests they help mitigate the transmission of droplets from one person to another, but their use is not required by the state.
At the Wednesday Market in Soldotna, some people chose to wear a mask, but most did not. All who were interviewed by the Clarion on Wednesday saw it as a personal choice.
“I don’t wear one, no, but if people want to wear one and they’re comfortable I’m fine with that,” Soldotna resident Jenny Johnson said on Wednesday. Johnson was at the park with co-workers, one of whom wore a mask. The group makes a point to go to the market together on their lunch breaks.
“I feel like it’s kind of become more normal, I mean we’ve been doing it for several months,” Liz Huntley said about the face coverings.
Johnson, Huntley and others said that whether or not people are wearing masks, they appreciate being able to come to the market after several months of limited social interaction.
“I think whether you want to wear a mask or you’re comfortable not, it’s good to get some fresh air and visit with some people and support local.”
Nila Sanchez, the owner of Yo! Tacos who is usually serving up food at the market, was taking a break on Wednesday and could be seen wearing a mask along with her son, Logan Amaya, as they walked their pug, Bronco, around the park.
“I do it for him (Amaya),” Sanchez said. “If he were to catch coronavirus, he wouldn’t survive. His immune system is probably weaker than you can imagine.”
Sanchez said that if she didn’t have kids, she probably wouldn’t wear a mask as often as she does, but noted that if she goes into an establishment where the workers are masked, she does the same out of respect.
“If they have to do it, I do it to support them,” Sanchez said. “Because they’re doing it to protect us … they’re the ones who are on the front line facing hundreds of people, you know, and a lot of these people come in sick, a lot of people don’t care, so I do it out of respect for them.”
James “J-Dub” Darby could be seen making the rounds with his pug, Daisy Mae, who is a bit of a local celebrity at the market. J-Dub chose not to wear a mask. He’s a senior and is considered to be at higher risk than others, but he wasn’t too concerned about the possibility of catching the disease.
“I’m OK with people wearing them. I think they should if they want to,” Darby said. “If I wanted to I would, but I stayed in for two months at my place, you know, and I’m just glad to get some fresh air. I did two tours in Vietnam, so I’m not too scared of this. If I get sick, I get sick. That’s it.”
Alex Koch was wearing a mask, and said that he was a little concerned given that Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula have seen a rise in active cases recently. Nine more Kenai Peninsula residents tested positive as of Wednesday, for a total of 62 active cases on the peninsula.
“Look at the numbers,” Koch said. “Since the state reopened, we’ve spiked and had a lot of numbers on the peninsula. It’s still there.”