X’s on the floor mark six-feet between customers at The Backdoor Cafe (KCAW/Berett Wilber)

The Sitka Assembly approved a new COVID-19 resolution on Tuesday (11-10-20) — it asks Sitkans to take several health precautions in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus and to keep Sitka’s schools open. And while some Sitkans voiced support for the resolution, several called for the assembly to take stronger action, like revisiting its previous discussion on “mask mandates.”

Member Thor Christianson, who co-sponsored the resolution with Kevin Mosher, said when they wrote it, there were only a few active COVID-19 cases in town. By the time the resolution made it to the assembly table on Tuesday (11-10-20), local coronavirus numbers had increased, with record active cases. And the Sitka School District had just announced that it would move to remote learning for a week in response.

“I was hoping to say ‘We’re doing great’ and really focus on the airport,” he said. “We’re not doing as great now, but we could be if we just have courtesy for each other.”

The new resolution “strongly encourages” Sitkans to use airport coronavirus testing when traveling, and asks that anyone traveling or returning to Sitka quarantine and take a second test seven days after arrival. It also asks Sitkans to wear masks in public places, practice social distancing and use drive-thru or curbside options at businesses. It’s not an order or a mandate, though — Sitkans are asked to “respectfully comply,” but the resolution is not enforceable by law.  

Several people spoke in support of the resolution. Others, like Charles Hart, spoke more specifically to the issue of masking in the community. 

“I would like to ask everybody in town to wear masks, be cautious, and be kind,” he said. “If we don’t deal with this spike, I do believe the state will eventually act to mandate masks and do another shut down. But by that time I worry it’s going to be too late.” 

Hart asked the assembly to try to find a way to implement a mask mandate locally. In July, the assembly rejected a resolution “ordering” mask wearing in public spaces — the strongly worded but legally unenforceable resolution received a mixed response from the public, and stalled at the table on a split vote. Several weeks later, the assembly passed a similar resolution that “highly encouraged’ mask wearing instead.

Patti Dick voiced support for the new COVID-19 resolution, but also said she hoped the assembly would reconsider a mask mandate or something similar in the future.

“We need help getting through the winter,” she said. “The assembly, I think, should at least, if they don’t do a mandate, require that businesses require mask[s].”

Charles Dean said he was indifferent to Tuesday’s resolution, but did not support the “criminalization of non-mask wearing” in public, responding to another Sitkan who said the assembly should consider a mask mandate with enforcement and penalties.

“I have no problem wearing a mask wherever I’m told to. I have to do it in my grocery store, my doctor’s office, my dentist’s office. I’ll do that because I need those services. I’ll play the game. But for somebody to suggest to this body that we need to criminalize people walking around outside with[out] masks is insane.”

Member Kevin Mosher, who cosponsored the resolution, said he would not support more stringent legislation like a mask mandate if it came before the assembly for consideration. 

“I believe that would be a serious mistake and would backfire,” he said. “I believe that we would probably have some lawsuits. We would probably have, inevitably, more people not wearing, just because they don’t like being told what to do.” 

And member Rebecca Himschoot, who was in favor of the resolution, pointed out the section that discouraged harassment of individuals who choose not to comply with the city’s new recommended guidelines. 

“We’re not encouraging people to become vigilantes about what other people should do, but we are encouraging people to take responsibility for themselves,” she said. “Dr. Zink and the governor have said repeatedly the only thing that is going to make a difference here is personal choice. So if we just all make a good, positive personal choice, this is going to work out.” 

The resolution passed unanimously.  It is in effect until the state and federal disaster declarations are lifted.

Note: On Thursday morning, November 12, 2020, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a statewide emergency alert on many residents’ cell phones, directing them to this video. He called the growing rates of hospitalizations and sick healthcare workers “untenable.” Sitka administrator John Leach issued an automated telephone warning later that afternoon, using similar language.