With an ommicron wave on the horizon, city leaders decided to extend Juneau’s emergency measures to combat COVID-19 until April 30. Community members both praised and opposed this extension.
Juneau has a system of rules who sets it based on COVID-19 risk levels — things like the city-wide mask mandate, how many people can get together, and how businesses operate. They are designed to slow the spread of the virus.
The community operates under this system since August 2020.
At the moment the risk level of the city is high. Hundreds of people have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks as the ommicron variety flows through Alaska.
Bartlett Regional Hospital has had staffing issues as so many people are unavailable due to exposure to the virus. That means the city requires masks and face coverings to be worn in public areas, indoors or out when people cannot maintain social distancing. They also limit indoor gatherings to 50 people if people have not been vaccinated.
When they met Monday night, Assembly members heard public testimony about extending that system beyond its expiration date. They have expanded this system before. They also received dozens of emails prior to the meeting. About half of the nearly 20 people who spoke out at the meeting opposed the idea of an extension. According to the city manager’s office, email responses were also evenly distributed.
Several people said they would like to leave Juneau and set up their business and business elsewhere.
“My kids don’t deserve to grow up in a city like this,” said Amy Miller. “We can’t do anything with this cold weather. We’re like, locked in the house, and our only option for going out is if we choose to go out and — we don’t wear masks. So just imagine what that feels like, going into every place and the looks we get. As if we are lepers.”
The people who spoke out in favor of the city’s continued management of the pandemic said they know people who have died from COVID-19. Or that they wanted to wear masks to protect themselves and others from spreading the virus.
Laura Steele said her daughter is not old enough to be vaccinated.
“So it’s very important for me and my family to keep these risk-mitigating strategies in place to feel safe and pretty much leave my home,” Steele said. “It’s both a health problem and an economic problem for me. I like to support local businesses. That’s something that’s a great value from me. But I don’t feel comfortable right now – until my daughter can be vaccinated – to taking her to a company where people are exposed.”
Steele told Assembly members she believes having a mask mandate keeps people with health problems comfortable enough to shop at local stores.
At times, public testimony was controversial.
Some people called members of the assembly fascists or accused the city of taking advantage of the pandemic. Another compared the enforcement of the mask mandate to the Gestapo – the secret police in Nazi, Germany. The city has only issued one subpoena for someone not wearing a mask, and that was early in the pandemic.
Amanda Spratt also spoke out against the extension. She said she thinks the city’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 are not working against the omicron variant, causing the number of cases to rise regardless of vaccination status.
“Today, 214 cases have been reported and only one person hospitalized,” Spratt said. “This is no longer an emergency, by no means of the imagination.”
Others said they were concerned that after an anemic season on cruise ships, local businesses will suffer from the indoor capacity limits that come into effect at the higher risk levels. Laura Martinson is a local entrepreneur.
“Just as our companies are desperately trying to get out of this pandemic, adding another three months to capacity mandates at a two-year risk level doesn’t indicate we have 80% vaccination coverage – which I think is bad. proud of it,” said Martinson. She asked the Assembly members to consider that the Omicron wave could end soon. She said they could wait and reconsider an extension later.
Robert Barr, who leads the city’s COVID-19 response, told Assembly members they are now discussing an extension because the legislative process they are using — a process that requires two Assembly meetings — is long. He said they are hopeful that the omicron variant will burn quickly and brightly and then decline just as quickly.
“Frankly, we’re just as hopeful as many of our witnesses … that we don’t have to do this again,” Barr said.
In the end, Assembly members said they use the best science available to make their decisions. They passed the extension of the emergency measure with some changes, including changing the mask requirement to a recommendation when the risk level drops to ‘minimal’.
They also changed the definition of what it means for the city to be “completely open.” It used to be that if the community reached a 97% vaccination rate among people eligible to get one, the city would lift all restrictions.
Now it’s not clear what it will take to be fully open, as the city will await guidance from federal and state health officials to decide when it will be time to fully reopen.