Beginning next week, everyone inside Soldotna city facilities will be required to wear a face mask when the central Kenai Peninsula is in a high or substantial alert level for COVID-19 transmission.
The new policy, which was authorized by the Soldotna City Council during the council’s Wednesday night meeting, takes effect on Monday, Aug. 16 and applies to all city facilities including Soldotna City Hall, the Soldotna Public Library, the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex and the public lobby and customer areas of the Soldotna Police Department, the Wastewater Treatment Plan and the Maintenance Shop.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear face masks in areas with high community transmission rates, which they define as a report of 100 or more cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days. On Wednesday, when the legislation was passed, the alert level in the central Kenai Peninsula was high, with 394 new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days, according to the City of Soldotna.
The legislation approved by the council on Wednesday was sponsored by council members Justin Ruffridge and Dave Carey and cited new recommendations from the CDC issued in response to the spread of the B.1.617.2, or delta, variant, which is highly transmissible.
“Despite drops in case counts this spring and early summer, all regions of the Kenai Peninsula Borough have seen a marked increase in COVID-19 cases over the past two months, and the Kenai Peninsula Borough is currently in high alert status for per capita incidence of new cases of COVID-19,” the legislation says.
Carey said that in sponsoring the legislation he feels a responsibility to protect city employees and Soldotna children from unnecessary COVID-19 infection. As of Thursday, no COVID-19 vaccine had been authorized for children under 12 in the United States.
“I believe that sitting on this council means that I have a fiduciary responsibility to every single person that works in this city, that we do all that we can to keep them safe, and that we separate them from undue possibility of illness,” Carey said during Wednesday’s meeting.
Ruffridge, who also owns Soldotna Professional Pharmacy and has helped spearhead COVID-19 vaccination efforts on the central peninsula, said he agreed with Carey.
“It’s important that we take care of those indoor settings and the employees we have in our city who are doing great work … ” Ruffridge said. “Indoor settings are at high risk transmission for COVID and this would be a great way that we can continue to offer those services to people.”
Council member Erick Hugarte, who was appointed to the council earlier this year, questioned the effectiveness of masks in helping mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
“I know that masks don’t work,” Hugarte said.
Masks have been shown to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. A study published in the peer-reviewed medical JAMA, or the Journal of the American Medical Association, describes at least 10 instances where masks were shown to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including in a hair salon, on a Naval aircraft carrier, among households in Beijing, China, and in states where masks were mandated.
Hugarte went on to say that people he talks to don’t want to wear masks and feel like their “constitutional rights” are being violated.
“I’ve told anybody who works or who lives in Soldotna: I work for you. You’re my boss,” Hugarte said. “I want to listen to what you have to (say), because no one has ever listened to us and I’m sick and tired of no one listening, (of) everybody’s fear or drama, taking over people who don’t feel that way.”
Soldotna Mayor Paul Whitney was one of multiple council members who pushed back against the idea that the council does not listen to members of the public. A previous effort to require masks in the city’s public spaces failed after more than 500 pages of public comment were submitted and passionate debate spread across a four-hour city council meeting.
“We listen,” Whitney said. “I think we’ve done a good job of listening to what the community wants. This applies only to our city buildings.”
Carey also pointed out that no members of the public attended Wednesday’s council meeting to testify about the resolution requiring masks in city facilities and called it “offensive” to say that the council does not listen to members of the public.
“I’m very aware that many people feel they are not being listened to,” Carey said. “I would mention that this was on the agenda and we’ve got seats here again for people. I don’t know that we put up any signs saying ‘you may not come to this meeting and discuss this.’ To a certain extent, when people don’t come to a public meeting, we have to use our best judgment.”
Queen reiterated Wednesday that the policy is only in place when the central peninsula is in the substantial or high alert level for community transmission of COVID-19.
“At any point in time, if the central peninsula dropped down into the low or moderate risk level, that requirement would automatically be suspended,” Queen said.
Face masks became optional in Soldotna city facilities earlier this year, as vaccines became widely available. Despite surging COVID-19 case numbers, however, vaccination rates among peninsula communities has plateaued in recent months. As of Thursday, about 45.1% of Kenai Peninsula Borough residents 12 and older were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to data from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
The resolution passed by a vote of 5-1 with Hugarte voting in opposition. Wednesday’s full council meeting can be viewed on the city’s website at soldotna.org.