Cloth face coverings will be required in public following the passing of an emergency city ordinance.
The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly passed the ordinance unanimously Monday night after more than an hour of mixed public testimony. The mandate went into effect immediately and lasts for 90 days.
Opponents who gave testimony said the science around masking was unsettled and said there are contradicting studies from well-respected medical institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institute of Health showing limited effectiveness of masking. Others cited concerns that wearing masks might in fact cause health problems for some.
“We have lived in Juneau for four months without this mandate with very little adverse effect to our residents and visitors,” said Tom Williams, an Auke Bay resident who called in to argue against the mandate.
The recent rise in cases hasn’t been matched by a rise in hospitalizations and deaths, Williams said, which he attributed to the virus not adversely affecting much of the population, the same argument made by Gov. Mike Dunleavy about mask mandates.
“What now has suddenly changed that this is critical to pass this mandate? The answer is nothing,” Williams said. “The point is we’re doing fine with current and local restrictions, private business decisions and individual actions to minimize the effect of COVID-19.”
Supporters said health agencies at local, state, national and international levels are advocating for widespread masking. Both the CDC and the World Health Organization recommend wearing of cloth face coverings while in public places. Reuters News Agency reported July 17, the photograph of a letter not recommending the use of a face mask with CDC letterhead was a fake, and that CDC advises wearing a face mask.
There are a lot of scientific reports, Deputy Mayor Maria Gladziszewski said, but added, “the CDC, the agency whose job it is to sort through all that, say we should do this.”
One supporter who called in made the argument the city has the responsibility to protect public safety, which sometimes means enforcing laws.
Cities “protect the public safety by not allowing people to do all the things they might want to do, we control speeding, we control crime, we control safety in buildings and we do it by law and we enforce it and that’s the way our community works,” said Kevin Ritchie, who called in from West Juneau. “Some people will ask the question, ‘Do I have the right to refuse this?’ and the answer is ‘no,’ it’s not even a close call.”
That’s a sentiment shared by Municipal Attorney Robert Palmer, who noted other laws in which governments restrict or enforce certain individual actions in order to protect public safety.
“Is it significantly different from seatbelt laws?” Palmer asked in an interview. “This is saying you do something to protect somebody else. We’re doing it to protect you.”
The mandate only applies to indoor settings, Palmer said, and a business’s own rules will still apply.
Violating the mandate comes with a $25 fine, but city officials are hoping members of the public will comply voluntarily.
“The big picture that everybody is hoping for is just having the discussion lead to people voluntarily comply,” Palmer said. “We’re really hoping we don’t have to issue fines to people. We want people to help protect their friends and neighbors so that our community can be in the best position we can so schools can reopen. Part of that is enforcement but we’re really just asking people to put a maks on when they’re in an indoor setting.”
But if a fine does become necessary, there are multiple city agencies that could issue one, Palmer said. Juneau Police Department is the most obvious, but Community Safety Officers who issue parking tickets and city code compliance officers could issue fines as well. Because the fine is a civil penalty there’s a larger list of agencies who are able to issue the fine, Palmer said.
JPD is still developing their policy, according to spokesman Lt. Krag Campbell. They too are hoping that simply passing the mandate will get people to voluntarily comply. Once JPDs official policies have been drafted they’ll be shared with the public, Campbell said, but the department considers enforcement of the mask mandate to be low priority.
“We’re usually going to advise them of the mandate, give a verbal warning, we’re trying to be able to supply spare disposable masks. Ultimately after receiving a verbal warning if someone still refuses to comply we’ll issue a citation. We want everybody just to comply with the ordinance. If we have to we can issue citations.”
There are a number of exceptions to the mandate with those with medical conditions complicating wearing a mask, but the mandate doesn’t require someone to prove they have a medical condition and according to Palmer, the city doesn’t want to have people do that.
“We expect people to be truthful,” Palmer said. “If somebody says they have some medical condition, the ordinance says we can’t ask people to provide verification for that.”
JPD isn’t interested in tracking down people’s medical conditions either, Campbell said.
“I could see how it would be very easy for someone to say ‘I have a medical condition,’” he said. “That will get really tricky, I really hope people won’t go there.”
The mandate passed unanimously and while some Assembly members said they had reservations about mandates, a recent spike in cases tied to a seafood processing business in Auke Bay convinced them of the need for a mandate.
“I knew at some point the mask mandate was going to be in front of us,” Assemblymember Wade Bryson said. “With the events that happened over the weekend, with all that’s happening I think we’ve reached the point where we need to take action.”
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.