A lone mask disposed of on a side-street in Downtown Sitka (KCAW/Berett Wilber)

Despite an upward trend in COVID-19 in the community, Sitka will continue to have no enforceable coronavirus measures. When the Sitka Assembly met on Tuesday (11-24-20),  it failed to muster the supermajority of votes needed to pass an emergency ordinance that would have limited restaurant capacity and prohibited large group gatherings.

After a relatively quiet summer, Sitka has seen its own surge in coronavirus, with new cases reported every day since October 28, and the schools in their second week of closure. This parallels trends statewide and nationally, that suggest the virus is taking hold again as we enter the usual cold and flu season.

Sitka’s second attempt at imposing enforceable coronavirus measures would have limited restaurant and bar capacity to 50 and 25 percent, respectively, and required mask wearing and other coronavirus prevention protocols in those establishments. It would have also capped indoor gatherings at 50 people. And it said the city could take legal action if businesses or individuals refused to comply. 

But during public comment, Sitkans pushed back: Some said it was an overreach on civil liberties, and others said it would be ineffective. Karen Lucas said it was too divisive and was concerned about how the ordinance would be enforced. 

“I’m hoping it doesn’t pass, because I too am very interested in preserving our civil liberties, and I feel like this is just a little foot in the door for what could become further restrictions on our private lives as Americans,” she said.  

Lucas was one of 10 people who spoke out against the ordinance. Dr. Valerie Edwards, a SEARHC physician, was one of only two Sitkans who voiced support for it. She said by passing it, the assembly would send a unified message to the public and take pressure off of local businesses trying to enforce COVID-19 prevention protocols.

“I know that we expect and hope that people can make responsible decisions. But I just don’t see that happening uniformly in town,” she said. “I think having a strong position and strong leadership will help provide some clarity and take some people out of the hot spot of having to be the bad guy themselves if there’s a stronger enforcement regimen beyond just each others neighbors and employers.”

Some critics of the ordinance challenged its constitutionality. City attorney Brian Hanson said, from a legal standpoint, he believed the ordinance would stand up in a court of law.

Assembly member Kevin Mosher, however, agreed with community members who said it was an overreach, and said the recent rise in local coronavirus cases wasn’t severe enough to warrant the actions spelled out in the ordinance.

“This is not the right thing at the right time. This is taking a sledgehammer when we need to be taking a little tack hammer,” he said. “We need to calm down, be patient and stay the course.”

Assembly member Crystal Duncan, who co-sponsored the ordinance with Kevin Knox recognized it was divisive, but said she hoped assembly support would empower business owners to enforce their own mask requirements. 

“The timeline isn’t perfect, but all of 2020 hasn’t been perfect, so again, I just want to give a shout out to the restaurants who are already doing this, and they’re pushing back saying ‘You’re not doing enough.’” she said. “We’re trying to find balance.”

Member Valorie Nelson said she’d attended the meeting to vote against the ordinance, despite experiencing a recent personal tragedy. Her mother had passed away earlier that day and her family had been unable to visit her due to hospital restrictions- so the idea of putting more COVID-19 restrictions in place was acutely personal. 

“If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re taking more rights away from people to be together,” she said.

Emergency ordinances need a supermajority vote in order to be approved. With two no votes assured, Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz was conflicted, but said he felt like it would be hard for the majority of the community to reach a compromise on the issue and come together. 

“I don’t feel that there’s the appetite for this ordinance right now. I don’t feel that a large part of the community wants this ordinance put on them. I feel that voluntary compliance with health mandates is high right now,” he said, noting he’d seen a more consistent use of masks in public.

“I feel that people are taking reasonable steps, reasonable precautions,” he continued. “And I fear that putting an ordinance in place with punitive measures is only going to help divide us.” 

The ordinance failed 4-3 with members Nelson, Mosher and Mayor Eisenbeisz voting it down.

In other business from Tuesday’s regular meeting, the Sitka Assembly denied a bid for the four-acre Whitcomb Heights subdivision.

Earlier this year, the assembly issued a “request for proposals” on the city-owned property next to the site of the 2015 Kramer Avenue landslides. Only one company responded — Pioneer Land Development, offering just over $17,000 for the acreage. City staff advised the assembly to reject the bid because it was too low. A measure to approve the bid failed 2 to 4 with members Kevin Mosher and Thor Christianson voting to accept the company’s proposal.

The group also unanimously approved $400,000 in appropriations for the Brady Lift Station Rehab Project, and the disbursal of a $50,000 grant from the United States Department of Homeland Security to the Sitka Police Department, to make security improvements at the police station.

And it unanimously voted to extend the COVID-19 emergency disaster declaration. Originally issued in March, the declaration was the first step the city took to begin securing federal funding in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Finally, the assembly issued a proclamation declaring November 28 “Small Business Saturday.”