Juneau requires masks again as COVID-19 cases rise

A store window with a sign requiring masking
A sign at a city building in Juneau, pictured here on Thursday, announces that masks are required for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Juneau emergency officials are raising the city’s COVID-19 risk level from moderate to high and mandating partial restrictions to limit the disease’s spread, effective at 12:01 a.m. today.

The main change is a requirement for everyone, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks in indoor public settings, and outdoors when people can’t keep 6 feet apart.

City Manager Rorie Watt said it’s clear the city’s condition has shifted amid a surge in case counts and other risk factors going in the wrong direction.

“You know, we’ve had a few comments from people, saying, ‘You’re moving the goalposts,’” Watt said. “Well, it’s a pandemic. Nobody ever promised that the goalposts were fixed. That’s not real. This is a dynamic situation and we’re increasing our community risk level, I think responsibly and appropriately.”

RELATED: Sitka mandates masks for the first time

Mila Cosgrove heads up the city’s Emergency Operations Center. In a press release, she said emergency officials didn’t make the decision lightly.

“This masking requirement is an attempt to prevent continued case count activity while having as light a touch as possible on our local economy and activities,” she wrote. “This updated requirement is in line with the CDC’s guidance that masks be worn by all individuals in indoor settings in areas with high transmission of COVID-19. The State of Alaska has issued the similar guidance.”

RELATED: Should you be wearing a mask indoors in your region of Alaska? Here’s what the CDC says.

Watt and other officials spoke during a COVID community update on Thursday. They hope that masking can reverse the trend, and keep the more contagious delta variant from spreading out of control. 

Officials said they’re also following Sitka’s situation as it deals with a case surge that began a few weeks before Juneau’s. Despite similarly high vaccination rates and a much smaller population, Sitka currently has more active cases than Juneau

“If we were seeing a similar caseload locally, we would see around 650 active cases,” said Juneau emergency planning chief Robert Barr. “So, that’s a huge number, right? It’s a really challenging, or it would be a really challenging situation to deal with, and I know that it is challenging for Sitka right now.”

Officials also discussed what impact the visitor industry is having on Juneau’s COVID situation. So far with cruise ships, Barr said close monitoring, good communication, strong isolation practices when cases are detected, and vaccination rates on board near 100% have kept community impacts minimal. 

“The vast majority of our cases are in residents,” said April Rezendes, a state public health nurse based in Juneau involved in contact tracing. “We’re having a few nonresidents, and that’s more often in people here visiting family, people working here for the summer. It really has not been tourists coming in for a week or two. This is really being driven by Juneau residents here in the community, interacting with each other.”

Other rules remain the same.

  • Indoor get togethers are limited to 50 people, unless emergency officials have approved a special mitigation plan.
  • Indoor bars and gyms must halve their capacities.
  • Restaurants are strongly encouraged to reduce capacity to ensure physical distancing.
  • Personal service businesses must require appointments and no waiting areas.
  • COVID-19 tests are recommended for all travelers. Unvaccinated travelers should limit their interactions with other people, pending negative test results.

City officials know of 110 people with active cases, which includes seven non-residents.

Emergency officials plan to resume daily reports of case counts next week.

This story has been updated and expanded with information from the community update. 

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Jeremy Hsieh is the deputy managing editor of the KTOO newsroom in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who’s worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He ran Gavel Alaska for 360 North from 2011 to 2016, and is big on experimenting with novel tools and mediums (including the occasional animated gif) to tell stories and demystify the news. Jeremy’s an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008.