Borough has no plans to consider face mask mandate
July 16, 2020
A growing number of Alaska communities in recent weeks have considered mandates that people wear face masks to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 infections but, at present, the Haines Borough has no plans to consider such a measure.
This month, city councils in Valdez and Seward approved mask mandates, while Juneau and the city of Ketchikan voted down similar measures. The Gustavus city council on July 13 voted to require that people wear face coverings when outside their homes. The rule took effect immediately.
In late June, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz issued an emergency order requiring people to wear masks in public spaces including restaurants and grocery stores.
In general, the requirements say people must wear masks in public spaces where social distancing cannot be maintained, allow for a wide range of face coverings, and include exemptions for children and people with health issues that make mask wearing difficult.
Haines Borough Emergency Operations Center commander Carolann Wooton said she doesn't anticipate the EOC will make a recommendation about mask wearing. She said the will of the community should be an important factor in any masking decision.
"As you know, our community is completely divided," Wooton said. "We're threading a needle here. Alaska as a whole has a lot of people who don't want to be told what to do and think it's part of their own personal rights." While, on the other side, "there are people who are concerned for their own safety and well-being," she said.
Wooton said for her, one of the sticking points about a mandate is the lack of enforceability.
The requirements in Anchorage and Valdez state that the "city reserves the right to use all available enforcement options to assure compliance," but don't specify what that means.
Cordova, which passed a mask requirement in April, has a $500 fine on the books for those who ignore the mandate. However, Cordova city clerk Susan Bourgeois said in an interview July 13 that, to her knowledge, no such fine has been imposed.
Instead of enforcement, Cordova has focused on an education effort, Bourgeois said. It hired six "ports of entry ambassadors," who staff the airport and harbor and also walk around town, educating people. "They do a lot of handing out of masks and talking about masks, but there's no punishment, per se, if you don't have one on," Bourgeois said.
The Haines EOC is planning a town hall for July 30 to solicit public feedback on COVID-19 topics, including mask wearing. At the last town hall, the majority of those in attendance spoke in favor of requiring masks.
A masking decision would ultimately need to go before the assembly, Wooton said. Like the community itself, Haines Borough Assembly members hold a range of views on the subject.
"As far as I'm concerned, the jury's still out on whether masking does anything," assembly member Paul Rogers said in an interview Tuesday. He said he wears masks in public places, but developing herd immunity from infections will be important to allow the community to resume its normal activities.
Rogers said mandating behavior is likely to be counterproductive. "If you encourage people to voluntarily do something, they're more likely to be willing to go along with it," he said, but at this point, he's not sure the borough needs to do more, beyond measures it already has in place.
Others view masks more favorably.
"I think that what we've been told is that the masks are really the only thing that can protect others and yourself," assembly member Stephanie Scott said. She said she wears a mask in public, noting, "it's not comfortable, it's not easy."
Scott said part of the reluctance to require people to wear masks in Haines may have to do with the low number of cases in the community. At the time Scott was interviewed, there were no known active cases in the community. As of Wednesday, Haines had one active case, and only three other documented cases since the onset of the pandemic.
The Alaska communities that have approved mandatory mask-wearing measures have higher case counts than Haines. Cordova has had six resident and five nonresident cases. Valdez has had only two resident cases, but 15 nonresident cases, the majority tied to the fishing industry. Seward has had dozens of cases and Anchorage leads the state with nearly 700 cases.
Scott said she thinks mask wearing may be most important for people entering the community but, like Wooton, said she thinks it would be beneficial for the public to weigh in.
State health officials continue to recommend mask wearing as a way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
State public health nurse Elaine Hickey earlier this month encouraged people "to be diligent about precautionary measures - continuing with diligent hand washing, wearing face masks when they can't keep six feet away from others and keeping social groups small."
At present, Alaska doesn't have a statewide mask requirement. Gov. Mike Dunleavy has said he trusts Alaskans to "do the right thing" when it comes to covering faces in public places, and he will not require mask wearing.
A number of states have implemented mask requirements this month. Texas, Louisiana, West Virginia, Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio and Oregon are recent additions to the list of 25 states that require masks in public settings.