The City of Bethel has upgraded its response to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in the region. Over the past month, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation announced ten cases of the coronavirus. In an effort to prevent further spread of the virus in the region, Bethel is offering a free quarantine option to individuals who arrive from Anchorage.
City Manager Vincenzo “Vinny” Corazza believes that Bethel is uniquely situated to limit the entry of the coronavirus into the region because of its singular entry point.
“We assume that the COVID cases are coming from outside our region, and the point of entry is the Bethel airport,” Corazza said.
Corazza says that when residents from Y-K Delta villages return home from Anchorage, they sometimes have a layover in Bethel. In some cases, villages are requiring residents coming back to take a COVID-19 test and receive a negative result, which they have to wait for in quarantine. Corazza says that the city is offering a way for those individuals to stay isolated in Bethel for free before continuing to their village.
“We’ll have a public safety officer, either a firefighter or police officer, come get you to put you in a hotel,” Corazza said.
Public safety officers would pick up individuals from the airport in a vehicle that has a plexiglass shield between the driver and passenger. The windows would be rolled down, and masks would be worn inside the car. On the way to the hotel, Corazza says that the driver would inform the passenger of some rules.
“We ask that you don’t go out of your hotel. We ask that you call back the EOC [Emergency Operations Center] the next morning when you’re connecting, and we’ll have somebody pick you up,” Corazza said.
Corazza said that both the hotel stay and transportation would be paid for with the city’s funding from the federal CARES Act, although individuals would be in charge of ordering their own food through delivery. He says that individuals interested in participating in the program can call the city’s Emergency Operations Center at 907-543-2297.
Another way Corazza planned to use the city’s CARES money was to financially incentivize passengers arriving at the Bethel airport to get tested for coronavirus. He says that without support from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, this initiative has stalled. Spokesperson Tiffany Zulkosky says that YKHC welcomes any help with combating the COVID-19 pandemic, but it could not advise any organization on what is an appropriate use of CARES Act Funding.
Corazza says that the city has already concluded that incentivizing testing is a defensible use of CARES funds. He just needs YKHC to tell the city when to send employees to the airport.
“Because if they’re not there on Saturday, and we show up on Saturday with the table, it’s like, well oops,” Corazza said.
Some residents have asked why the city can’t mandate testing at the airport. Corazza says that the answer to that is the same reason why it can’t mandate mask wearing in public like Anchorage has done now.
“We do not have health powers as a second class city,” Corazza said.
Alaska Municipal League Executive Director Nils Andreassen says that only a few cities in Alaska have health powers to enforce health mandates. Andreassen says that some cities without health powers have implemented health mandates, like sheltering-in-place anyway, with some help.
“I would say that a lot of cities acted in collaboration with their tribe,” Andreassen said. “And tribes have a different set of authorities or powers which the city might not have.”
Corazza says that the city has not looked into any health mandates in partnership with the Bethel tribe, ONC. He says that such a collaboration would have to be initiated by the city council.