With little government action on Kenai Peninsula, businesses left to enforce mask rules on their own

A zoom screen with white people
At a meeting Monday, Craig Wortham of Alyeska Tire asked the Kenai City Council to pass a city-wide mask mandate. He said it’s been difficult to enforce a mask requirement at his stores without support from the city or state. (Screenshot from Kenai Council)

Just as Gov. Mike Dunleavy has left decisions on mask mandates up to Alaska cities, all but one Kenai Peninsula city has left those decisions up to businesses.

Local officials say they’d rather give owners the option to enforce — or not enforce — mask wearing. But that hands-off approach has put some in a bind.

Craig Wortham is the general manager of Alyeska Tire, an Alaska auto repair and tire chain with four stores on the peninsula and several others around the state. He’s required masks at all locations since the pandemic started.

“We’ve been called names at the front door. We’ve been called ‘libtards,’ ‘communists,’ ‘socialists’ and more recently ‘Nazis.’ It’s been a remarkably difficult journey for us,” he said.

Wortham has been following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization since day one. Recently, he experienced the toll of the virus firsthand when an Alyeska employee died from the virus.

The measures at Alyeska have helped ensure that no outbreak has originated from any of the stores. But the blowback from customers has been difficult. On top of the taunting, Wortham estimates nearly half of his potential customers turn around when they see they have to wear masks inside his business.

“It feels like all the responsibility has fallen on the doorsteps of the businesses to educate the consumer, educate the community, educate employees,” he said. “We get virtually no support from city officials, we’ve gotten virtually no support from the leadership on the state level and we haven’t got much leadership on the federal level, either.”

On Monday, Wortham asked the Kenai City Council to implement a mask mandate to take some of the pressure off his business. He said he plans on making a similar appeal to the Soldotna City Council.

Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel said it’s unfortunate that mask-wearing has become politicized, but that he’d rather see decisions about masks left to individuals. He pointed to a video he put out last week and a joint resolution from the cities and borough asking residents to take precautions.

He also said he thinks a mask mandate would be difficult for cities to enforce. Last month, Kenai City Councilman Henry Knackstedt said he worries mandates might lead to fights between those who are enforcing the rules and those who refuse to wear masks.

But that’s something Wortham’s already had to deal with on his own.

“I had a gentleman jump in a truck coming down to beat me up one day from our Palmer location for mask-wearing,” he said. “And the police had to intervene. The troopers did. And it was all over asking someone to wear a mask.”

Pamela Parker is the only member of the Soldotna City Council who has openly advocated a mask mandate for the city at meetings. She also owns Everything Bagels in Soldotna and requires masks there.

“It’s so challenging to come out and take a stance on some of these more politicized issues because you’re not removed from the community at all,” she said. “You’re not the governor of the state whose sole job it is to make these tough decisions. You’re the neighbor to people who are disagreeing with you. You’re a business owner in the community, you have kids in the community. You see everyone when you’re out grocery shopping.”

She said she wishes the state would do something to alleviate the pressure on city governments and business owners.

“I do think it would carry a lot more weight if it did come from the top down,” she said.

Still, there are plenty of customers who applaud the measures these businesses have taken. Wortham said he’s gotten some encouraging feedback at his Soldotna store, which is down the street from Central Peninsula Hospital.

“I received phone calls from doctors in the community, lending their support and giving me high-fives and telling me how much they appreciated what we were doing, how positive it was and how it was helping them in their fight and their battle,” he said. “The medical community seemed to rally behind us.”

Seward once again became the only city on the Kenai Peninsula to instate a mask mandate at its meeting last week. The city had a similar mandate in place this summer.