Sitka enacts its first mask mandate as community wrestles with its largest COVID-19 outbreak yet

People at a table wearing masks looking at a computer
Health care workers were masked up at a vaccine clinic at the Sitka Fire Hall earlier this year. Masks are now required in most indoor public spaces, though there are some exceptions (Berett Wilber/KCAW)

Sitka has its first mask mandate.

In an attempt to curb the community’s largest COVID-19 outbreak of the pandemic, the Sitka Assembly voted 6-0 at an emergency meeting on July 29 to require masks in public spaces.

The Sitka Assembly previously considered a mask mandate back in July of 2020, though it was a resolution with no enforcement arm, and it still didn’t pass.

This time around, things were different. The more contagious delta variant has reared its head in Sitka, causing the Southeast Alaska community’s worst outbreak of the pandemic so far. The pressure was on the Assembly to do something when it met for an emergency meeting last week. 

The new ordinance temporarily requires masking in indoor public settings. It expires on Aug. 24 or when the city’s COVID-19 alert level shifts from high down to moderate. Those who don’t wear masks in required areas can be fined $50.

Dr. Robert Hunter was one of nine community members who called on the Assembly to approve the ordinance.

“It’s more than a common courtesy, like wearing a shirt or shoes, which anybody would do in a restaurant or a grocery store,” he said. “A mask really is as simple as putting on a shirt. But it’s potentially preventing life and death situations for people you’re encountering.”

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Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium Chief Medical Officer Dr. Elliot Bruhl also called on the Assembly to pass the ordinance, citing the high transmissibility of the delta variant.

“This current variant spreads hundreds of times more easily than the wild-type virus we were dealing with last year,” he said. “Masks have been scientifically and medically proven to reduce the spread. In my opinion, as a physician, they should be required indoors in public spaces by all in this circumstance. It’s consistent with CDC guidance. It’s the medically correct thing to do at this time.”

Bruhl said SEARHC hospitals and medical centers are near capacity. He also pushed the Assembly to consider mandatory testing at Sitka’s airport.

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

A few members of the public argued that masks aren’t effective and pose their own health risks, but most of the 11 Sitkans who spoke against the mandate were concerned with personal freedom. Mary Todd Andersen questioned how the city would enforce a mask rule, and worried it would turn neighbor against neighbor.

“Where are we going to go, what’s next? Nabbing our neighbors?” she asked. “‘Oh! Mary Todd Andersen, oh she’s at church, she didn’t wear a mask! Nab her now, get her name! Get her social security number!’ What are they going to do, lock us away on Biorka?”

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Biorka is an island near Sitka.

Another resident, Jaylene Owen, said that the ordinance would cause further division.

“Are you prepared for the psychological damage long-term app usage will have on our children because they will be deprived of critical social interactions?” she asked. “While this disease is real and not going away, we as a community do not need more restrictions and mandates that cause division.”

While more members of the public spoke against the ordinance at the meeting, several Assembly members mentioned the many emails they’d received about a mask mandate. Assemblymember Crystal Duncan outlined how those emails broke down.

“I had 66. Seven of those were opposed, which comes out to about 10%,” she said. “Fifty-seven said you need to do something. So that’s 86%. 53 of those said, ‘I strongly support a temporary mask mandate.’”

Assemblymember Thor Christianson challenged the personal freedom argument.

“You don’t have the freedom to hurt other people. And I was thinking about this the other day, that if I took one of my guns — and I actually have a lot of them — and fired a clip into the air when I was in town, the chances of one of those bullets hitting somebody on the way back down, it’d be very low,” he said. “But I would get arrested.”

Assemblymember Kevin Mosher, who voted against the mask mandate last year, said his perspective had changed.

“I’ve always fought against — or in my mind against — mandating anything, because it’s a big deal. It’s heavy,” he said. “It’s to protect our, I mean, everyone, but our children, who cannot protect themselves, and we’re not a good community if we’re not doing that.”

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Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz, Rebecca Himschoot and Kevin Mosher all expressed reservations around the “enforcement” section of the ordinance. Eisenbeisz said he’d be happy to remove the fines section, and Mosher was concerned about how police would enforce it.

City Attorney Brian Hanson said, as with other minor offenses like using a cell phone while driving or putting garbage on the curb before 5 a.m., it would be up to the police chief to determine how and what resources to put toward enforcing the mask mandate.

In the end, no motions were made to alter the enforcement language in the ordinance. The Assembly voted 6-0 in favor of the mask mandate. The emergency ordinance goes into effect immediately.

While the mask mandate passed muster, two other emergency COVID-19 ordinances failed.

A measure to provide lodging for non-residents who test positive for COVID failed 3-3, with members Knox, Duncan and Mayor Eisenbeisz opposed. And a measure to give $1,000 grants to Sitkans who test positive and are forced to quarantine for 10 days also failed 3-3, with members Duncan, Mosher and Mayor Eisenbeisz opposed.

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