Several people participated in a rally in front of City Hall on Sept. 29, before the city assembly considered extending the current COVID-19 mitigation measures. At the meeting, assembly members voted to extend the measures through March 1, 2022. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

City extends COVID mitigation measures, restores fines for violations

Decision generates intense public input

This story has been updated to include additional information and update wording.

On Wednesday evening, City and Borough of Juneau Assembly members unanimously voted to extend the city’s current COVID-19 mitigation plans until March 1, 2022, rather than letting them expire on Oct. 31.

The assembly made the decision after hearing hours of public testimony with protesters in front of City Hall and police officers standing just outside the council chambers.

In addition, after extensive discussion, the assembly voted to re-establish the $25 fine for non-compliance with the mitigation measures — a component that the assembly dropped over the summer, the first time the measures were extended. City officials acknowledge that no fines had been issued under the ordinance, but said that giving the ordinance “teeth” made it easier to enforce.

The assembly will revisit the ordinance early next year to consider if it needs to be renewed beyond March 1. The initial extension called for a June 1 expiration date. The assembly agreed to shorten the window based on public feedback. The CBJ Assembly has the authority to repeal the ordinance at any time if conditions change.

Don’t call it “a mask mandate”

Often called the “mask mandate,” the measures are a collection of mitigation strategies that vary based on factors such as the level of viral spread, hospital capacity locally and regionally, 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.

“This is not a mask mandate,” said Maria Gladziszewski, assembly member. “It’s only there when cases are high.”

Despite Juneau’s high vaccination rates, the city is currently experiencing the highest caseload since the pandemic began in March 2020, as Alaska leads the nation in new COVID-19 infections.

The current community risk level is “Level 3-High,” a level that calls for vaccinated and unvaccinated people to wear masks inside public places.

[Some Southeast communities see COVID cases rise]

Public weighs in

Public testimony at the meeting skewed heavily toward opposing the renewal of the mitigation measures.

But, Mayor Beth Weldon said that assembly members received feedback through many channels. Most of the people that assembly members heard from supported the extension—including the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce.

“There’s a group of people that won’t be happy,” Weldon said. “But the numbers are over 200 supporting the move and the business community has weighed in with support.”

According to a recent Axios-Ipsos poll, “majorities of Americans support policies requiring the use of masks in schools (70%) or public places (66%).”This ratio appears to roughly reflect the feedback split that CBJ Assembly members reported observing.

Those who testified against the extension cited various reasons for their views — including a belief that masks don’t work, harm to mental health, concerns that masks make people sick and questions about the efficacy of vaccines.

The Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as virtually all global health agencies, have conducted several studies that conclude the masks are effective, they don’t make people sick, and that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.

However, many denounced those studies as “psedueo-science” and cited other studies that they had found online that drew opposite conclusions.

Christian Jacobsen led the testimony by acknowledging that he is not an expert and he said that neither are assembly members. He said that he “has a fair bit of common sense” and that it led him to oppose the extension.

“A mask mandate no longer serves the purpose it once did. I’d rather pay a $25 fine than submit to any of your dictates. I ask you to choose wisely. You might be surprised how angry and violent our law abiding citizens can get,” he said.

Several invoked the U.S. and Alaska constitutions and the city charter and said the ordinance violated fundamental freedoms granted by the documents.

Some said the city could not keep extending emergency ordinances and suggested a recall campaign for city officials.

However, city attorney, Robert Palmer, told the assembly that the ordinance is not an emergency authorization but a regular ordinance that takes effect 30 days after its enactment.

“We, the governed, do not consent to infringement on life and liberty,” said Shannan Greene, who testified before the assembly and participated in the picketing outside City Hall.

Many accused the city and local media outlets, including the Empire, of “fear mongering” and waging an intense “propaganda campaign.”

In addition, many said that the measure would create division in the community and sow discord.

A handful accused the city of making money from the mandate, linking the federal CARES Act money the city has received to decisions about masking.

According to Palmer, receiving federal money is not tied to the city pursuing any particular mitigation strategies.

In addition to the email feedback supporting the extension, some callers also voiced support.

“Wearing a mask is a hassle. My glasses fog up. But, we are in the middle of a global pandemic. Nearly 700,000 have died in the United States,” said Ryan Stanley. “I appreciate those in the community who recognize that (mask wearing) is a teeny, tiny thing. It’s not an infringement. To those of you arguing against wearing a mask, why is your personal comfort more important than the life of your neighbor?”

Kim Metcalfe, who has sharply criticized the assembly on tourism-related issues, shared her support for the extension.

“I may disagree with some of the policies the assembly puts forward. But, I believe I have the liberty to be free of the virus being transmitted to me by people who are not wearing a mask. I ask you to stay the course. Keep that mandate in place. You can always remove it, if it subsides,” she said.

[CBJ surveys residents about tourism]

Candidates react

Current District 2 Mendenall Valley city assembly candidate Kelly Fishler called in to oppose the extension.

“I am not testifying to poke holes. But, I am opposing,” Fishler said. “One of the hardest things you can do is to step back.”

Fishler said that extending the measures would cause dissension and distrust and noted that she was very frustrated.

“I love this city and have had close friends and family members who have had it (COVID-19). This is not a good idea. I’m not anti-vax or anti-mask, but I’m against mandates.”

School board candidates Aaron Spratt and Thom Buzard, who have been campaigning to move schools onto a parents-choose platform of limited mitigations, both called in to oppose the measure.

[Second write-in candidate joins school board race]

End goal

Many who testified at the meeting and by phone asked assembly members to explain their “end goal” around COVID-19 mitigations.

Some implied that the city’s goals included achieving “zero COVID,” shuttering certain businesses or controlling the population.

Before the vote, Gladziszewski shared her goals.

“For me, the goal is to keep kids in school and keep businesses open. I’m not trying to take anyone’s freedom away. It’s not to ensure that nobody ever gets COVID. It’s so we can keep schools open and hospitals functioning,” she said.

Wade Bryson, assembly member, asked city staff members if the city has forced any businesses to close due to COVID-19 mitigations.

Robert Barr, deputy city manager, confirmed that the city had not forced any businesses to close because they weren’t following the COVID-19 mitigations.

“CBJ has forced zero businesses to close due to a (lack of) mitigation measures,” he said.

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

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