When the Sitka Assembly met on Tuesday (9-14-21), it approved an ordinance to extend Sitka’s temporary mask mandate through March of next year. But the new mandate, which differs slightly from the one in place for the rest of this month, must be approved by the Assembly on second reading before it goes into effect.

It was standing room only when the Sitka Assembly met on Tuesday. Around 40 Sitkans testified, most speaking against the updated mask mandate, which could be enacted at the end of the month.

The city’s current mask mandate is set to expire on September 28 or when Sitka’s “high” COVID risk level drops. With the new ordinance, masks wouldn’t be required in indoor public spaces anytime Sitka’s risk level drops below “high.” The mask mandate would go back into effect any time the city’s risk level increases to high over the next six months.

For around two hours, the Assembly listened to public testimony, which was limited to two minutes per person. Most of the nearly 30 people who spoke against the mandate repeated concerns shared at previous meetings. Many said it was infringing on personal liberties, and some made claims about the safety and efficacy of masks that are contrary to guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But this time, business owners voiced strong opinions too. Stacy Mudry owns Sitka Ready-Mix. She said the city’s current mask ordinance was affecting her business, and she wouldn’t support the updated mandate.

“I was torn when this ordinance first came out on how to put my signs up on my doors. I put signs up. And I started watching my customers drive in, see the signs, drive out,” Mudry said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, great. Now I’m losing my customers.'”

Roger Hames, of the Hames Corporation which oversees Sea Mart, Market Center, Silver Basin, and Cascade Convenience Center said the Assembly had put businesses in a “no win situation.” He said moving forward, masks would be optional at Hames Corp. businesses. 

“There have been yelling matches inside the store, yelling matches outside the store, almost to the point where the police have been called to prevent a fight from taking place,” he said. “There’s no enforcement of this. If there’s no enforcement, why have an ordinance in the first place? It makes no sense to me. I currently have a mask mandate at my operations, all my stores. But effective tomorrow, I am not going to have a mandate.

Hames was met with applause and cheers from the audience, and his testimony briefly cut off by Deputy Mayor Thor Christianson who called for a short recess. When the meeting reconvened, Police Chief Robert Baty asked the audience to adhere to the rules, and Hames finished his comment.

“Please, no reaction to this. I honestly mean that,” Hames continued, “But if there’s going to be anyone fined, let it start with me. I will be at my biggest business tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. not wearing a mask, and I will pay any fine that the employees incur.” 

Throughout the testimony, Deputy Mayor Christianson continued to ask the crowd to refrain from clapping, cheering and jeering. Patricia Dick was one of around 8 who spoke in support of the mandate, which she said protects unvaccinated children in Sitka’s schools, but she was heckled by the crowd.

“Recently, some teachers from Homer asked me, ‘How did you get a mask mandate in Sitka?’ and I said, ‘Our Sitka Assembly loves our children,” Dick said, prompting some booing from the crowd.

“Please, we let you talk. Let her talk,” Christianson responded.

“And they love our health care workers, and they love our essential people who are on the firing lines here. You guys care,” Dick continued.

And Blossom Teal-Olsen, who said she’d been listening to the meeting while grocery shopping, felt prompted to come speak.

“This is a community, and it’s divided, and it’s very sad to see it this way. And I understand that people have freedom. And I understand your big obstacle of choice that you have here tonight…I know that you guys will act in our best interest, and you guys are awesome for sitting in this room listening to all of this emotion tonight,” she said. “I hope Sitka can really come together and stop being so divided on such an issue that is so trivial.”

While most of the comments at the meeting were against the ordinance, Deputy Mayor Christianson said the majority of the emails the Assembly received supported the ordinance. (In a follow up email to KCAW on Thursday, Assembly Member Rebecca Himschoot said she’d received around 70 emails in favor of the ordinance, and around roughly 10 opposed.)

After listening to nearly two hours of testimony, the Assembly deliberated. One of the ordinance sponsors, Crystal Duncan, cited high COVID rates throughout Alaska, with hospitals reaching ICU capacity in Anchorage. She said she would support the continuation of a mask mandate to protect vulnerable elders and children. 

“We know that as of today, 12-and-under still cannot be vaccinated,” she said, asking audience members to think back to last November when no one had access to a vaccine. “And that was really scary, that really adjusted our behaviors within the community. Well, guess what? Our kids don’t have that luxury. We now come and go as we please, because we feel this sense of, ‘I’m okay, I’m vaccinated.’ We still have to wrap our arms around our children just like Doctor Zink reminded us to do until [the vaccines] are approved. And we don’t know when that’s going to be. We have to show up for them.”

And Kevin Knox said he would likely vote against the ordinance, but not because he doesn’t believe masks are effective or necessary. 

“I’m going to continue to wear my mask. I’m going to implore everybody in Sitka to do as much as they can,” he said. “The reality that I end up seeing is that COVID is wrecking the entire globe. Hospitals being totally overrun, healthcare staff being totally stressed, losing family members to COVID, losing close friends. This is going to be an incredibly hard vote for all of us.”

After deliberation, the Assembly approved the ordinance on a 4-2 vote with members Rebecca Himschoot, Crystal Duncan, Kevin Mosher and Thor Christianson voting in favor, and members Kevin Knox and Valorie Nelson opposed. The Assembly will consider it on second reading when it meets on September 28. 

Read more coverage of the September 14 Assembly meeting (which was extended to September 16) here.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect information shared from an assembly member on Thursday (9-16-21) concerning the number of emails assembly members received in favor and opposed to the masking ordinance, in addition to the comments at the meeting.