Dunleavy says COVID-19 mandates should be up to local governments

Ketchikan fire chief and emergency manager Abner Hoage, third from right, answers reporters’ questions about the local response to the coronavirus at a March 10, 2020 press briefing. The Ketchikan Gateway Borough is one of a handful of second-class boroughs in Alaska that may not have the authority to pass local COVID-19 mandates. (Maria Dudzak/KRBD).

Gov. Mike Dunleavy answered calls to impose more statewide COVID-19 mandates by saying those decisions should be made by local governments. 

“I know there’s a lot of people that would love for me to mandate masks, bar closures, restaurant closures,” Dunleavy said during a news conference on Tuesday. “But it simply doesn’t make sense when you have communities that have never seen the virus and may never see the virus. 

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Dunleavy said that state health officials will work with municipalities to recommend steps they can take to mitigate the spread of the virus. 

“It just makes more sense, from a resource perspective, from a focus perspective, and really from a local control perspective to have a partnership with the state with the local elected officials and the local folks to be able to battle this virus,” he said.

Dunleavy pointed to other states that are allowing city and county governments to decide whether to impose mandates. He said Alaska has supported rural communities that have limited non-essential travel. 

Dunleavy’s comments came  shortly after hospital leaders told the House Health and Social Services Committee that hospital capacity would be overwhelmed in September if the current growth in cases continues. Some suggested the state could impose a statewide mandate to wear facemasks that would allow municipalities to opt out rather than opt in.  

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Some of the state’s largest local governments may not  have the legal authority to impose health mandates. 

Alaska Municipal League Executive Director Nils Andreassen said the league is working with the administration on providing advice to municipal officials. But he said second-class boroughs — including Fairbanks North Star, Kenai Peninsula, Matanuska-Susitna and Ketchikan Gateway boroughs — don’t appear to have this authority. 

“I think for the second-class boroughs, it’s pretty clear that this is a challenging position, and that pretty clearly they can’t issue a mandate,” he said. 

Department of Law attorney Ed Sniffen said the state is advising municipalities on their authority to make changes. At the news conference, he addressed what would happen if municipalities are sued over public health restrictions.

“Nobody’s ever immune from a lawsuit — people sue people all of the time for whatever. All we can do is make sure we have the best legal authority, that we can help municipalities understand before they decide to take action,” he said. “And we have been trying to be proactive in doing that with communities.”