A collection of signs advising patrons about various COVID-related issues sits atop the front desk at the Douglas Branch of the Juneau Public Library on Jan. 6. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

City Assembly poised to consider COVID mitigations

Quick-moving omicron variant forces meeting to Zoom

When members of the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly meet Monday night to consider the future of COVID-19 mitigation measures, the discussion will unfold on Zoom due to infections and exposures among assembly members and city staff.

As the omicron variant of COVID-19 sweeps through the country, CBJ members will begin considering the future of the city’s COVID-19 mitigation plans, which expire on March 1, unless city leaders act to renew them.

Thursday morning, Mayor Beth Weldon confirmed that COVID-19 infections and exposures forced the assembly to use Zoom so that the meeting can unfold as scheduled.

Assembly member Michelle Bonnet Hale likened the march of omicron to a zombie movie. She said it feels like the zombies are getting closer as more people in tighter circles are diagnosed with COVID-19.

“Omicron has tipped things in a very wonky way,” Hale said in a phone interview Thursday morning.

[City raises risk level amid surging COVID cases]

Craig Dahl, executive director at the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce, expressed frustration with another wave of infections in a phone interview Thursday morning.

He said that chamber members expected COVID-19 to be “well in hand” by March and wanted the city to be clear of any rules that make it tough to be a visitor to Juneau.

City officials and local business leaders acknowledge that the rise and quick spread of the omicron variant is a new and challenging factor as the renewal of the ordinance looms.

“I don’t know the magic line between when you pass to an endemic virus from a pandemic,” Dahl said.

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Dahl said chamber members had not yet had a chance to discuss the mitigation renewal as people are returning from holiday vacations. But, he said the topic is very much on his mind and he expects the group to take an official stance soon.

City leaders told the Empire the topic is top of mind for them too and that constituents have started reaching out in advance of Monday’s meeting with more expected over the next few days.

Weldon said that she’s getting about five emails a day from constituents in advance of the meeting. She said that most of the emails encourage “staying the course.” She said she expects the number of emails to rise as the meeting date gets closer.

“We definitely have outliers in both directions,” she said, adding that it’s helpful to hear from people. “It does change our mind. We need to hear from all our constituents.”

A tough question

Last passed in October, the measures are often called the “mask mandate.” But, the measures cover areas beyond masks. They include a collection of mitigation strategies that vary based on the level of viral spread, local and regional hospital capacity, and public health’s ability to conduct contract tracing. Public masking is a measure in place during times of high community spread. As the community risk level changes, the corresponding mitigation measures adjust.

Earlier this week, rapidly rising numbers of COVID-19 infections in Juneau prompted city officials to change the city’s risk level to “Level 3-Modified High,” a level that requires masking in public regardless of vaccination status.

Deputy City Manager Robert Barr told the Empire that the Emergency Operation Center members will recommend that assembly members generally stick with the current mitigation measures. He previewed a few minor modifications in December.

Weldon said that several factors behind the scenes — like hospital capacity in Seattle and Anchorage — drive the changing mitigation levels. She understands how people can find that frustrating.

She said the mitigation measures represent a careful balancing act.

Weldon said the people who attended the last renewal meeting in the fall — including those who stood outside assembly chambers with picket signs — represented about a third of the overall feedback the assembly received on the topic.

She said she considered the totality of feedback on the topic when thinking about the issue.

To renew or not to renew

Public sentiment on the renewal is divided, according to city leaders.

“I can tell you we have smaller business members that object to the mask aspect of the mitigation strategies,” Dahl said. “A lot of them want to move on. We have members up and down the spectrum.”

Dahl said that he understands larger employers are addressing the issues through policies, regardless of the city’s rules.

Hale said she understands people are tired, but she sees the measures working and doesn’t think the time is right to let them expire.

“I completely support the mitigation measures. They’ve done a good job. Our EOC has done a great job with a delicate balancing act. They get it,” she said.

Hale said the feedback she’s getting from constituents is “interesting.”

“A lot of people think we should have gone back to masks sooner,” she said, in reference to the Monday decision to require masks in public again.

“It’s a balancing act. People are just so weary. They really crave being with friends and family and I feel that,” she said.

Hale said that before city mitigation measures required masks again, most of the people she saw around town were still wearing masks — a decision she attributes to growing education about the role of masks in preventing the spread of the virus.

“As we get past omicron, we start to figure out how to normalize this thing,” she said.

Fellow Assembly member Greg Smith said he supports renewing the mitigations.

“The tiered measures are set up to protect economic health while limiting spread. I get that having to do these things really sucks. But, doing nothing would be worse,” Smith said in a Thursday afternoon phone interview.

Smith said that he’s seen diverse perspectives coming in on the renewal question.

“The majority want us to support it,” he said of the communication he’s received so far. “We all are tired of the impact of COVID. It’s a dynamic situation and all the messages can lead to confusion and fatigue. I get that. I’m compassionate about that.”

[Juneau schools to reopen Monday, as planned]

Smith said the tiered measures protect economic health while limiting spread. He said that efforts to reduce the viral spread in the community give people the confidence to travel to Juneau, help businesses function and keep kids in school.

Thin staffing

Across the country, schools, airlines, businesses and hospitals are reporting staffing shortages due to sick employees.

On Monday, Barr said that the EOC had concerns about staffing levels for businesses and services across the city as omicron appeared to be moving swiftly through the Borough, requiring infected people to isolate for five days.

On Monday, Barr said that 12 staff members at Bartlett Regional Hospital were out due to COVID-19 isolation and quarantine requirements.

As of Thursday afternoon, Amanda Black, interim director of marketing and strategy for the hospital, said that staffing at the hospital looks good and that operations are “steady.”

Black said she didn’t have a tally of staff members out on Thursday. But, she said, “different roles are affected by the outage,” with “none causing concern at this time or directly affecting operations.”

Miranda Warren, house supervisor at BRH, said that a COVID-19 patient was discharged on Wednesday, and there were no COVID-19 patients in the hospital Thursday morning. However, she said the hospital has had “a few cases” come into the emergency room.

On Thursday afternoon, Barr said that city staffing levels were “thin in some areas.” But, he said that staffing issues were not seriously impacting city services.

Barr said that three employees who typically work on street and plowing crews are out and that their absence is causing some delays. He said the absences are not specifically related to COVID-19.

Officials at Juneau schools said that staffing concerns are top of mind as school resumes Monday. Board president Elizabeth Siddon noted the district has a decision tree in place to help guide staffing discussions at the local school level, which could help avoid a system-wide shutdown.

Kristin Bartlett, chief of staff at the school district, said the district now has a “good size pool of subs” compared to the number of substitute teachers available at the beginning of the school year.

As staff returned to school on Thursday, Bartlett said most people returned.

“Schools did not see a large wave of absences today,” she said in an email late Thursday. “There were people out for a variety of reasons, but so far only a few are experiencing travel delays or in isolation due to COVID-19.”

Know & Go 

What: The CBJ Assembly will hear public testimony on COVID-19 mitigations. It’s the first hearing to renew the mitigations, which expire in March.

When: Monday night, January 10 at 7 p.m.

Where: The meeting will take place entirely on Zoom.

— Join online https://juneau.zoom.us/j/91515424903

— Call 1-253-215-8782 with Webinar ID: 915 1542 4903

— Or watch on Facebook Live

To Comment: According to a Thursday afternoon news release, residents who want to provide comments during the meeting are encouraged to call the Municipal Clerk’s Office at 907-586-5278 or email City.Clerk@juneau.org by 3 p.m. on Monday, January 10. When contacting the clerk, commenters will be asked to provide their name, email address, and phone number.

During the meeting, those wishing to comment can use the ‘raise hand’ button if using Zoom or press *9 on their phone to be added to the queue. Once connected, press *6 to unmute when called upon to speak.

Residents are also encouraged to email comments in advance to BoroughAssembly@juneau.org.

According to Weldon, the amount of time that each person can speak will depend on how many people wish to address the assembly. She said Zoom meetings must end by 11 p.m., so comments may be restricted to one minute per person.

“A minute is short, I know,” she said. “But it’s a guessing game, and we have a large agenda.”

• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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