With the end of the pandemic in sight, city officials voted to revise local COVID-19 rules Monday night. They also added a measure to make the city’s response to future developments more nimble.
Based on the vote, local mask-wearing rules and size limits on gatherings will vary based on vaccination rates. The city manager will also have more latitude to adjust mitigation measures based on guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Beginning Sunday, residents and visitors can skip airport testing when arriving in town.
The new rules will expire July 31, a hastening of the initial timeline that set late October as the sunset date, a change proposed by Mayor Beth Weldon.
“We are winding down. It does not look like we are going to get huge cruise traffic in town. As long as things look good, we should revisit this on July 31,” she said.
As the pandemic eases, city officials said they are carefully watching for federal guidance on future mitigation measures.
“We are trying to adjust our strategies regularly. I believe over the next month or two, the science is going to become a lot more comfortable with restrictions lifting,” Mila Cosgrove, deputy city manager and the COVID-19 emergency operations center incident, told assembly members.
Based on the expectation of evolving federal guidance, the ordinance allows City Manager Rorie Watt to adjust mitigation measures based on advice from the CDC. The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly will ratify any changes made by staff members and allow for public comment during the ratification process.
CBJ’s municipal attorney Robert Palmer said that this move allows for greater flexibility.
“My understanding is that the CDC is considering recommendations to masking. This gives the manager the ability to react to the guidance,” Palmer said. “This means the manager is required to comply with CDC guidance as soon as it comes out and then present it to you.”
The CDC on Tuesday shared new guidelines for mask use, saying that fully vaccinated people do not have to cover their faces while outdoors unless they are in large crowds of strangers, the Associated Press reported. Additionally, the AP reported the CDC says that whether people are fully vaccinated or not, they do not have to wear masks outdoors when they walk, bike or run alone or with members of their household.
CBJ has not and does not require use of face masks when outdoors.
The CDC continues to recommend masks at indoor public places, such as hair salons, restaurants, shopping centers, gyms, museums and movie theaters, according to the AP, saying that is still the safer course even for vaccinated people.
That guidance matches current local mitigation measures in place.
Tiers added to risk level 1
Assembly members accepted a plan proposed by Cosgrove earlier this month to adopt a tiered mitigation strategy that changes as local vaccination rates increase. The level 1 — or low-risk category — is broken into three categories based on citywide vaccination levels.
Under the new guidelines, Juneau is currently at risk level 1a, which means that transmission is low, but less than 50% of the total population is vaccinated. At this risk level, face masks and social distancing are required in public places, except for eating and drinking in restaurants. Gatherings are limited to 100 people.
“We will be at 1b by May 14 and 1c very shortly after,” Cosgrove said.
Level 1b kicks in when 50% but less than 70% of the total population is vaccinated. Then, masks and social distancing measures must be taken when unvaccinated people may be present. Indoor gatherings should be limited to the number of participants that will allow six feet of social distancing to be maintained and masks are required. Outdoor gatherings are recommended, but there are no limits or required safety measures if all people at the gathering are fully vaccinated.
After 70% of the city’s total population is vaccinated, the risk level would move to 1c. At that level, masks must be worn indoors in public areas when children who are too young to be vaccinated are present. Currently, vaccines are approved for children age 16 and up. The testing and approval process is underway for vaccine use in younger children, but a timeline for approval remains unclear.
While there would be no size limitations on gatherings, masks must be worn indoors when vaccine-ineligible children are present. There are no limits or required safety protocols.
Travel testing requirements to expire Saturday
City Assembly members rejected a measure that would require non-vaccinated people visiting Juneau to take a COVID-19 test at the airport upon arrival. The current testing requirement expires May 1. After that, free testing will still be available at the airport, but it will be voluntary.
Earlier this month, Assembly member Greg Smith proposed requiring unvaccinated travelers to take a COVID-19 test upon arrival at the airport rather than allowing the current testing requirement to lapse. However, he voted against it last night.
“When I proposed it a few weeks ago, I just wanted to get something in play. I don’t think that having people take a test is a huge burden, and I am concerned about people who won’t test. I’m not voting for it with a little heartache,” he said. “But, we want to do everything we can to support business.”
• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at email@example.com or 907-308-4891.