(KCAW/Berett Wilber)

Sitka’s mask mandate is now extended through March of next year. The house was packed when the Sitka Assembly met on Tuesday to consider a final vote on an updated mask mandate requiring masks in most indoor public spaces. which will go into effect any time the community’s coronavirus risk level is “high.” Right now, Sitka is considered by state health officials to be in a “high COVID risk level” any time there are nine or more cases reported over a seven day period. When the alert level is downgraded from “high,” the mask mandate goes dormant.  

Just under 50 people commented on the mandate, with over half of those testifying in person and over the phone voicing support. Sitkans spoke of loved ones who’d gotten sick or died from the virus. Some were concerned for protecting unvaccinated children. Some referenced data from studies that show masks, particularly surgical and N95s, are effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 —studies that inform the CDC’s guidance on mask wearing. And others spoke of lost time. Bonnie Cottrell said she used to play the piano for Pioneer Home residents several times a week until the high COVID count limited visitation. And she hoped a mask mandate would make that possible again. 

“Not only me, but dozens of volunteers who provide activities and companionship for the residents. None of us can go there. Unless the case count goes down, the Pioneer Home staff is stretched to the limits, finding creative ways to fill in the gaps. I’m concerned about the residents. I’m concerned about the staff,” said Cottrell. “I really think everybody in this room wants the same thing. We want this pandemic to be over and we want it out of Sitka forever.”

Those who spoke out against the mask mandate continued to say that Sitkans should be given a choice. Some questioned the efficacy and safety of masks, and others said the mandate was government overreach, unconstitutional and unenforceable.

“This is America, supposed to be the land of the free, supposed to be a place that people get to choose what they do. And everybody gets to choose what they do,” said Mae Dunsing. “I’m just saying we’re adults, let’s choose what we do.”

Lindsay Evans, who spoke in favor of the mask mandate, challenged the personal liberty argument. 

“And me personally, I would like to take care of my fellow citizens. I am a true patriot. And this is not a muzzle,” Evans said, gesturing to the mask she was wearing. “Everyone can hear me just fine.”

Others said the mandate was only serving to amplify divisions in Sitka.

“I’m opposing this mandate as well, because I think it’s going to cause further division and just inflame and kind of escalate the whole divisiveness of what we’re facing now,” Karen Lucas said. “Especially as we head into the dark days of winter.”

After two hours of testimony, only six Assembly Members were left to deliberate. Earlier in the evening, Assembly Member Valorie Nelson called for Thor Christianson to recuse himself, citing rumors of comments made against the unvaccinated at a recent EOC meeting. Nelson’s request was denied by Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz, and she left the Assembly table before public comment began, returning only after the Assembly voted on the ordinance. 

Member Kevin Knox, who voted against the mask mandate at the last meeting, reiterated that he firmly supports mask wearing and mask requirements in indoor spaces and businesses, but took issue with the enforcement and penalty section of the mandate, which says those who don’t comply may be fined $50. 

“When we have an ordinance, and a mandate that ends up coming from this body that has a penalty section in it that we don’t expect to utilize, I think that takes the governing authority away from what we do today and tomorrow,” Knox said.

Knox said if a patron refuses to leave a store after being asked to put on a mask or becomes disorderly, there are other laws in place that would be more appropriate than a $50 fine.  Knox moved to remove the penalty language from the mandate entirely. The motion failed 1-5 with Knox in favor. 

Mayor Eisenbeisz felt there was more masking compliance when mask use was voluntary in the community. He said he had multiple concerns with the ordinance, including the enforcement burden it would continue to put on businesses. 

“I really wish that when this passes, I believe that the Assembly would give a strong commitment to enforcement,” he said. “Right now we’re putting that burden on the businesses. We say that we’re easing the burden on our police force. We are, I will agree, but you’re putting that burden back on the businesses without realizing it. I, as a business owner, have enforced this mandate more than the city has. I don’t appreciate that. I don’t feel like I have the backup because it’s not being applied.” 

Member Crystal Duncan said she would continue to support the ordinance.  She said the community was in favor, with the vast majority of emails the Assembly received supporting the mandate. And she said the Assembly should stay the course and, quoting the late Kobe Bryant, “Rest at the end, not in the middle.” 

“There are consequences when we decide we want to sit back and take a break. We’ve never navigated a pandemic before and we’re doing it to the best of our abilities and we’re succeeding, but when we have opportunities to minimize spread, I think we need to take those steps,” Duncan said. “So we’re not here fighting about masks, we’re fighting for the health of our community. And to frame it more accurately, we aren’t fighting each other, we are fighting a virus.”

The mandate passed on a 4-2 vote with members Crystal Duncan, Thor Christianson, Kevin Mosher, and Rebecca Himschoot in favor, and Kevin Knox and Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz opposed. It goes into effect immediately. 

Read the full mandate here