Mask mandate fails in Ketchikan

Face masks for employees at at Salon Ivy in Midtown Anchorage on Thursday, April 23, 2020. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

A proposal that would have mandated masks in public places inside Ketchikan city limits failed for lack of support last week.

City Council member Sam Bergeron had advocated for a mask mandate to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But he withdrew his support after the ordinance prepared by city staff included a $500 fine for those caught without masks.

At last Thursday’s city council meeting, he said the city should instead focus on providing handwashing stations, free masks at stores and expanded public health advertising.

“And I think at this point that’s the best thing that we can hope to do,” Bergeron said. “So as a council, and as my agenda item I want to back that off, put that back over to the professionals.”

Ketchikan physician Diane Liljegren advocated for the mask ordinance. She pointed to federal and state public health recommendations that people wear masks in crowded spaces. Liljegren warned that those without symptoms can spread the virus and expressed fears of a potential surge in coronavirus cases.

“The medical community in Ketchikan is small. It’s geographically isolated. If we have a surge in cases it will quickly overwhelm us,” she said. “It’s been bad enough down south with big cities — it’s going to be worse here.”

Liljegren called mask-wearing “the altruistic thing to do.”

But many community members said they saw the masking proposal as a violation of their personal rights. Holly Gillen said she views it as a civil liberties issue. She questioned the council’s authority to require masks in public.

“Why I chose not to wear a mask is not important, because this isn’t about masks,” she said. “This is about choice — the choice to govern one’s own body. What we choose to do with our health is none of your business.”

Ketchikan’s city council later voted to table the mask ordinance, effectively killing the proposal.