Soldotna City Council Member Jordan Chilson (bottom row, center) addresses the council on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2020 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Screenshot)

Soldotna City Council Member Jordan Chilson (bottom row, center) addresses the council on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2020 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Screenshot)

Soldotna council rejects mask mandate, approves COVID education initiative

More than 500 pages of public comment were submitted prior to the Wednesday meeting

The Soldotna City Council killed legislation that would have required people to wear face coverings in buildings open to the public after more than 500 pages of public comment were submitted prior to their Wednesday meeting.

The legislation, which was formally considered by the council as Ordinance 2020-028, was sponsored by council members Pamela Parker and Jordan Chilson.

In a memo to the council, Parker and Chilson encouraged the temporary mandate’s implementation and said that doing so could help reduce widespread community transmission of the COVID-19 and relieve stress on the local health care system.

Central Peninsula Hospital CEO Rick Davis said Tuesday that if cases continue to grow, the hospital is at risk of becoming overrun. Alaska also broke its own record for the largest single-day case increase on Thursday, when 760 new cases were reported in the state.

“COVID-19 is here and rapidly spreading throughout Soldotna,” Parker and Chilson said in the memo. “As a council, we have the opportunity to implement best practices in an effort to change the current upward trend of positive cases in our community.”

The ordinance would have included exceptions for people alone or with members of their household, people who were eating or drinking, people exercising or people with a medical condition preventing them from wearing a mask, among others.

The City of Seward recently reinstated a similar mask mandate, which included similar exceptions and was passed by the city council. Seward remains the only city on the peninsula to have implemented such a mandate.

Prior to the city council meeting, more than 500 pages of public comment were submitted, including more than 400 pages in opposition to the temporary mask mandate and more than 100 in support of it.

Comments in opposition varied from objections to mandates in general, to claims that such an implementation was a government overreach, to warnings from people who said they would shop online instead of locally if the mandate went into effect.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Richard Derkevorkian submitted one such comment, in which he compared the council implementing a temporary mask mandate to “[ruling] their Citizens like communist China.”

“If you impose this tyrannical mandate I will exercise my rights not to shop in your city, your businesses and tax income will suffer,” Derkevorkian said. “Anything I can’t find outside the city of Soldotna will be bought online.”

Another comment submitted by Justin Yragui echoed many of the sentiments expressed in the hundreds of other statements in opposition.

“If this passes, my family will either not shop in Soldotna, or if we do, we will not comply. Covid is not going anywhere. We will not make it go away by wearing masks. This is completely absurd and an overreach of government. Your going to cause civil unrest trying to impose a mask mandate and it will all be your doing,” Yragui wrote.

Elaina Spraker, who serves as U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan’s Kenai Peninsula regional director, also submitted a comment in opposition to the legislation, which she said would “destroy” public trust in the council.

“It is not the councils place to make our health care decisions and take away our personal responsibilities,” Spraker wrote. “What this ordinance is telling our community -’you all are too foolish so we need to make your important decisions for you.’”

Words that were used frequently in public comment submitted in opposition to the ordinance include “fear,” which appeared 76 times and “Constitution” which appeared 164 times.

Many of the comments in support of the move came from medical professionals, teachers and small business owners in addition to members of the public.

One comment in support came from Dr. Alexa Rodin, an internal medicine physician at Central Peninsula Internal Medicine who said that she has dealt with many COVID-19 patients who have told her they would start wearing a mask now that they knew how serious the virus is.

“I am doing my best to counter the enormous amount of misinformation surrounding the basic things that people can do to minimize spread,” Rodin wrote to the council. “However, I cannot create change the way that you can, and it would mean so much to know that my local government has my back.”

Another letter of support for the legislation came from the Medical Executive Committee of Central Peninsula Hospital. Among the letter’s signatures was that of CPH CEO Rick Davis, who Tuesday warned the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly that a continued surge in cases could lead to CPH becoming overrun. In the past month, CPH has exceeded its bed capacity several times and has been working to fight an outbreak of the virus in Heritage Place Skilled Nursing facility, where more than half of all residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and one resident has died from the virus.

“Infection prevention measures, specifically masking, hand washing, and social distancing, are effective at reducing the spread of this virus,” the letter said. “We ask all members of the community to join us in protecting each other through vigilant mask use in public spaces so that we can maintain the ability to provide care for us all.”

Another letter in support came from Rev. Meredith Harber of Christ Lutheran Church, who said she was able to FaceTime a COVID patient, who later died, from their hospital’s Med-Surg floor after being called by the patient’s family.

“After we hung up, I walked down the hall to cry, knowing that this person’s final days were to be spent in isolation,” Harber wrote. “I composed myself as a professional and returned to the window, where I watched this dear person who I love mouth out ‘Please help me.’”

Other comments that supported the legislation in the same breath criticized the council for not taking such action sooner in light of recent strains on local health care systems.

“I’m frustrated that this pandemic is given momentum by those who are belligerent, but more frustrated that those in positions of authority have allowed it,” wrote Jessica Moore.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear face coverings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Because COVID-19 spreads mainly from person to person via respiratory droplets that travel into the air when people cough, sneeze or talk, it is easy for people in close proximity to breath in the droplets or for the droplets to land in their mouths or noses.

The CDC also recommends wearing masks because of the high number of people who are infected with COVID-19 but who are asymptomatic.

“The main function of wearing a mask is to protect those around you, in case you are infected but not showing symptoms,” the CDC said in a release updated last month.

Though the Soldotna City Council prevented Parker and Chilson’s face covering legislation from moving forward, they greenlighted a resolution introduced by council member Justin Ruffridge that authorized the creation of a campaign aimed at educating people on ways to reduce the risk of COVID transmission.

The resolution specifies that information shared by the city will be up to date and accurate and will be taken from “trusted public health sources” such as the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and the CDC.

In a memo to the council, Ruffridge outlined the different areas the campaign would target, which include emphasizing that any new onset of symptoms should be taken seriously, encouraging people who experience new symptoms to take a COVID-19 test and utilizing COVID mitigation techniques, among others.

“It is important to recognize the growing weariness with the ongoing pandemic and the variety of ways it has affected our daily lives,” Ruffridge wrote. “In light of the rising number of cases, the current capacity of our health care infrastructure, the economic impacts, and the significant impact on health and life in our community it is imperative to bring our community together, educate each other, bring facts to light, discourage misinformation, and encourage kindness and compassion for each other.”

More information about COVID-19 in Alaska can be found on the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services website, where case data is also updated every day.

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

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