For Bethel cab drivers, an unwanted duty: enforcing the city’s COVID-19 testing mandate

A Kusko Cab in Bethel (Katie Basile/KYUK)

On Aug. 31, the Bethel City Council passed a mandate requiring people arriving at the Alaska Airlines terminal to be tested for COVID-19.

The mandate also states that taxi drivers picking up passengers at the airport must check that the passengers have been tested, which has awkwardly put cab drivers in the position of having to enforce the law.

Kusko Cab is Bethel’s largest cab company. Co-owner Naim Shabani said that the day after the city council passed the new mandates, he printed out posters detailing the rules and told all of his drivers to put them up in the back seats of their cabs.

“There’s two posters,” Shabani said. “One is requiring passengers to wear a mask. And then the other one is the explanation for the need to show proof of a test at Alaska Airlines, or proof of a negative test.”

Even before the mandates were passed, Shabani said that many cab drivers were already asking passengers to wear a mask. But Shabani said asking strangers if they took a medical test is taking it one step further — and it puts cab drivers in an uncomfortable position.

“Now they kind of have to play driver and enforcer at the same time, and a lot of passengers coming in generally don’t agree with having a cab driver enforce mandates on them,” Shabani said.

Shabani said he has not heard of any confrontations between drivers and passengers who refuse to show they were tested yet. He also said he’s taking his drivers’ word that these testing checks are happening.

“I can’t follow up on every single cab and cab ride to ensure that they follow this,” Shabani said. “It’s very much a self-policing mandate.”

Alaska Cab, Bethel’s second largest taxi company, did not follow the city’s new mandate at first. Co-owner Choon Chung said he had not received communication from the city about the mandate, but that he would comply now that he knew.

“Nobody reports for what we’re supposed to do, but we’re gonna do it from today,” Chung said. “We’re gonna to tell everybody today.”

Both cab company owners said the city’s new mandates would only apply to a few rides per day because of the limited number of passengers who arrive at the Alaska Airlines terminal these days. Shabani said he has half the number of drivers he used to have on the road, due to the general downturn in business coupled with the health risks of COVID-19.

“A lot of drivers have resigned,” Shabani said. “A lot of them have just kind of gone on a hiatus, if you will, just waiting to see if it’s gonna turn around.”

Meanwhile, the City of Bethel has no plans, at least in the short term, to enforce the airport testing mandate. Acting City Manager Lori Strickler said she’s working on plans to expand the city’s airport testing incentive program instead.

“We would prefer, instead of issuing citations to people, to incentivize people to comply,” Strickler said.

The city provides $25 gift cards to local businesses if you get tested at the airport, but that’s only offered on the weekends. Strickler said she wants the city to be able to provide incentives to arriving passengers on every flight during the week and is looking at different options to do so.

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