A sign outside of Ernie’s Old Time Saloon, where masks are already “highly encouraged” (KCAW/Berett Wilber)

Just two weeks after a resolution “ordering” mask wearing in public failed at the assembly table, a resolution with more lenient language passed. Sitka’s local government now “highly encourages”– but still does not require– mask wearing in public.

When the assembly met earlier in July, it narrowly voted down a resolution “ordering” people to wear masks in public spaces where social distancing isn’t possible. The “order” was proposed as a measure to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

But even though it was called an “order” there were a lot of exceptions to the rule. And language within it clearly stated that it was not “legally enforceable” and there would be no punitive action taken if people chose not to wear masks. Even so, it was met with resistance from the public, and it failed on a split vote. 

Sponsors Thor Christianson and Kevin Knox went back to the drawing board and changed the language. At Tuesday night’s meeting (7-28-20), they brought a new resolution that “highly encourages” mask wearing in public, instead of “ordering” it. Like the first resolution, there are no fines for not wearing a mask- people still have a choice. But Member Christianson said it was important for the assembly to get the message out that mask use in public needs to happen to protect our neighbors, even if the city can’t require it. 

“If we want to keep businesses open, if we want to try and continue to open, continue to try and let charter people in here and all that, is to try and reduce the spread. And right now the only tool in our box that we have is masks. It’s not that hard to wear one. I wear mine, it’s just not that bad,” he said.

Not everyone was convinced. During public comment a small handful of Sitkans spoke out against the resolution, including David Lam who is a medical doctor. 

“While it’s better than the last version which you turned down two weeks ago, it is still a very bad idea. The assembly is not a medical body, and with the exception of Dr. Wein you have no medical expertise on which to base this resolution,” he said. “I strongly recommend you let people make up their own minds about this issue based on their own knowledge and on discussions with their own healthcare providers and quit trying to scare or force people into actions which you may like.” 

The Centers for Disease Control currently recommends cloth face masks to slow the spread of COVID-19. The CDC calls masks the most effective in protecting a community when they’re widely used by people in public settings.

No one spoke in favor of the new mask resolution, but Christianson said that “twenty to one” the emails he’d received were in favor of passing it. The reason those folks weren’t at the meeting? He said they didn’t want to be around people who weren’t wearing masks. 

Member Valorie Nelson said she wouldn’t support the resolution and was unhappy that other assembly members were considering it so soon after they had voted down the mask order.

“In my opinion this is the waste of paper that it’s written on, and I’m not voting in favor of it. I’m not rolling over, I’m not running for re-election so I don’t have to posture,” she said. “But it really makes me angry think that we have two assembly members that can ‘bully, bully, bully,’ until they get their way, or three or four or whatever. I’m very disenfranchised to see that now you’re rolling over.”

And member Kevin Mosher said that the new resolution would only serve to create more divisiveness in Sitka. 

“The people who are not going to wear them are still not going to wear them with this resolution. And although it does say in there that you’re not to antagonize people, I’ve learned from talking to people, they don’t really read these things. They listen to whatever the media reports, and the media is probably going to report something to the effect of ‘They’re required now,’ when it’s just a suggestion,” he said. “This is just going to create more division.”

But Mayor Paxton and assembly member Richard Wein, who voted against the previous mask order, were swayed by the easing of language in the new resolution. But Wein said it still wasn’t a solution, and really preventing the spread would take a lot more than wearing masks in public.

“The vast majority of people will cheat with their masks for comfort reasons and that’s something that is just a fact. So for community spread, it’s very difficult to prevent that,” he said. “But I am certainly happy to vote ‘yes’ on this because it is a suggestion and I don’t mind suggestions

Ultimately the resolution that “highly encourages” mask wearing passed at the assembly table on a 5 to 2 vote with members Valorie Nelson and Kevin Mosher opposed. It is in effect through mid-September.

The city now also requires that all visitors, contractors, and employees in city buildings wear masks when keeping six feet of distance is not possible.

Read more coverage of Tuesday’s Sitka Assembly meeting here