Utqiagvik passes unique punishment for violators of COVID rules

An arch in the snow made from giant whale ribs
The bone arch in Utqiaġvik, made from bones of the bowhead whale. (Photo courtesy of Arctic Council Secretariat / Kseniia Iartceva)

The North Slope city of Utqiagvik passed several new COVID-19 restrictions at a Wednesday city council meeting that included a unique punishment for rule-breakers: requiring they produce public service announcements on the dangers of the coronavirus. 

Mayor Fannie Suvlu said there are several reasons the city chose that punishment. The first is the recognition that some residents aren’t educated on the reasons for coronavirus precautions. The PSAs can take the form of voice recordings for radio, video clips or flyers.

“If you do a flyer regarding it, that’s not only educating the person that violated it, but once we hang the flyer up … you’re spreading that within the community,” Suvlu said.

Read more stories on how the coronavirus is affecting rural Alaska

Another reason is the tradition of public-facing punishment in the majority-Inupiat community.

Suvlu said that, traditionally, people who committed sexual offenses were marked so that they were identifiable. More recently, rule-breakers who are banned from public buildings are forced to face a public reckoning. 

“Whether it’s a child or if it’s an adult, they come to the city council meeting and publicly apologize. So it was kind of along those lines that we were looking at,” she said. 

Suvlu noted that if the rule-breakers choose to make flyers, they won’t necessarily have their names revealed, but for videos and voice recordings, she said the public disclosure could play a powerful social role. 

For the second violation, people must perform community service, and for subsequent violations, they could be subject to fines. 

The new ordinance changes many of Utqiagvik’s recommendations about masking and quarantining into mandates. People who arrive in Utqiagvik are now required to quarantine for 14 days, and masks are required in all public places. 

The new rules come as Utqiagvik experiences a rapid uptick in coronavirus cases. According to the Arctic Slope Native Association, 12 cases were reported in Utqiagvik between Wednesday and Thursday at noon.

Correction: This story previously incorrectly referred to Arctic Slope Native Association.