The Soldotna City Council participates in a remote meeting on Wednesday, April 28, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Screenshot)

The Soldotna City Council participates in a remote meeting on Wednesday, April 28, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Screenshot)

Soldotna to resume in-person meetings regardless of COVID risk levels

The council first voted to restrict in-person meetings during October of last year.

The City of Soldotna will hold city meetings in person even if the central Kenai Peninsula is considered to be at “high risk” following a vote in support of the change during their Wednesday night meeting.

The council first voted to restrict in-person meetings during October of last year, when they approved a motion that required all of Soldotna’s board, commission and council meetings to be conducted remotely when the central peninsula is at high-risk level for COVID-19 transmission. That motion also allowed Soldotna Mayor Paul Whitney to call for in-person meetings if the region was at high risk.

The Soldotna City Council has met in person for multiple meetings over the past couple of months due to the peninsula being at medium-risk level, but held their Wednesday meeting remotely. Soldotna City Clerk Shellie Saner said Thursday that the council’s April 14 meeting was held in person despite high-risk levels at the direction of Whitney.

Because the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services does not report COVID-19 risk levels by region on the Kenai Peninsula, Soldotna has looked to the metrics created by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Those consider the central peninsula to be at high risk when 52 or more cases have been reported in central peninsula communities over the past 14 days, medium risk when 26 or more cases have been reported and low risk when fewer than 26 have been reported.

As of April 27, the central peninsula was considered to be at high risk, with 123 cases reported within the last two weeks.

In bringing forth an action memorandum on the high-risk protocol, council member Justin Ruffridge cited increased access to the COVID-19 vaccine in the community.

“In light of that, it would seem prudent to allow in person meetings to continue even during a high risk level,” Ruffridge wrote in a memo to the council. “Those wishing to meet in person (and can do so safely) should be afforded that opportunity while those who choose an alternative form of attendance have a means by which to do so.”

Ruffridge also owns Soldotna Professional Pharmacy and has worked closely with the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management to spearhead vaccination efforts on the central peninsula. With help from volunteers, including the City of Soldotna, they’ve been able to host several large-scale COVID-19 vaccination clinics capable of vaccinating hundreds of people in a single day.

COVID-19 vaccination rates have plateaued in weeks. As of Thursday, about 41.82% of people eligible to be vaccinated on the peninsula had at least one dose. That is compared with about half of eligible Alaskans — 49.8% — who have at least one dose.

“Some of these things that we put in place last year were during the peak of our cases and had very little in the way of any options for mitigation other than to be separate from each other,” Ruffridge said. “I think the time is right to rescind that motion.”

Council member Pamela Parker, who initiated the rules stating that the council would operate remotely during high-risk level, said that during the council’s last meeting, where “every chair was full” by in-person attendees, she could see that other council members were uncomfortable and put their masks back on. Parker said she would like to see “more stringent” adherence to COVID mitigation protocols at future in-person meetings.

“We still only have less than 40% vaccinated in our area,” Parker said Wednesday. “I want to make sure that we are not the cause of this virus continuing to spread.”

The motion to rescind ultimately passed by a vote of 5-1 with council member Lisa Parker voting in opposition.

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

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