Bethel police arrest of COVID-19 positive man for violating self-isolation

A blue building with a ramp leading to the front entrance
Nora Guinn Justice Center in Bethel, Alaska. (Dean Swope/KYUK)

Last week, for the first time during the coronavirus pandemic, Bethel police arrested a COVID-19 positive individual for being out in public. Police were enforcing a state order. 

On Oct. 16, Bethel resident Buck Bukowski was running an errand on his lunch hour at the AC grocery store when all of sudden, he watched a wild police chase unfold right before him.

“A guy goes running by me running really fast, and he kept looking around, looking behind him,” Bukowski said.

Bukowski said that the man started running toward the Alba’s and Subway parking lot, but was stopped short. A chase occurred, and officers eventually caught him behind the United Pentecostal Church.

“They wrestled him down and got handcuffs on him,” Bukowski said. “And they said this guy was COVID positive.”

Bukowski said that police told him the man was not quarantining, and that was why they were arresting him. On Oct. 19, Police Chief Richard Simmons confirmed Bukowski’s story in a phone interview with KYUK. 

“Obviously this is not something we’ve done before. And it’s actually not something that’s done, basically, very often at all,” Simmons said. “Long story short, we have a gentleman in the community who has some other issues going on. He’s got a couple mental problems, and he’s partially homeless. He came back with a positive test. And of course, you know, the expectation is you go and lock yourself up for a little bit, and take care of yourself and get over it. And do what the doctor orders. Well, he didn’t. And so he forced the COVID team over at YKHC to deal with the State Department of Health to get an order for this guy, to get an actual court order.”

YKHC Vice President of Communications Tiffany Zulkosky wrote to KYUK in an email that if they are aware that an individual is willfully refusing to quarantine or unable to quarantine, YKHC lets the state know, and the state can issue an Emergency Administrative Isolation Order. Simmons said that Bethel police were called late on Oct. 15 to serve this order. 

“Thursday, the 15th, we were able to find him and get him over there to YKHC. Shortly after we dropped him off, he decided to leave,” Simmons said.

So the search was on again. Police located him a second time on Oct. 16, which is what Burkowski witnessed. Because the COVID positive individual had violated his self-isolation a second time, Simmons said that there were more consequences.

“Once a person is issued an order from the Department of Health like that it’s actually a misdemeanor to disregard it,” Simmons said.

So the police transported the man to jail to wait for his arraignment.

“And for just the night, he spent the night over there, but they have a quarantine room and all that stuff,” Simmons said. “They’re set up for that.”

Simmons said that the police officers who were involved in the arrest rotated off shift, took a shower, changed uniforms, and disinfected their vehicles. But he said that they don’t have the luxury of quarantining after their exposure to the virus.

“We don’t have the staff to do it,” Simmons said. “And we have not seen a decrease in calls since COVID has hit in this community. So needless to say, we still have to, you know, we still have to handle the normal domestic assaults, and the violence, and then the standard property crimes that happen daily in this community.”

With the amount of exposure to the community police officers have, and with the case count in Bethel climbing, Simmons said that it’s no surprise that five out of 10 officers in his department have been infected with COVID-19 at some point. 

He said that one officer is currently infected and in self-isolation. Three officers came down with the virus in August, and Chief Simmons himself caught the coronavirus while traveling to Bethel to take this job in July. He said that he self isolated before coming to work and didn’t observe any symptoms. 

“They were non existent,” Simmons said. “Which again is what makes it so dangerous, because you can be sick, and you can be passing it and not know it. And that’s why we test regularly with the police department.”

As for the individual who required an Emergency Administrative Isolation Order, YKHC said that as of Oct. 21, that person has successfully remained in quarantine since the weekend.

KYUK also contacted the Bethel Winter House because the police chief said that the infected man was partially homeless. Winter House President Jon Cochrane said that the shelter temperature checks all its guests and encourages them to participate in YKHC’s free testing without an appointment, which is offered on Wednesdays in Bethel.