Utqiagvik passes unique punishment for violators of COVID-19 rules

The bone arch in Utqiaġvik, made of bowhead whale jawbones. This year, Alaska whalers got a rule change they were hoping for in how their whaling quota is renewed. (Arctic Council Secretariat / Kseniia Iartceva)

The North Slope city of Utqiagvik passed several new COVID-19 restrictions at a Wednesday city council meeting that included a unique punishment for rule-breakers: producing public service announcements on the dangers of the coronavirus.

Mayor Fannie Suvlu said there are several reasons the city chose that punishment. The first is the recognition that some residents aren’t educated on the reasons for coronavirus precautions. The PSAs can take the form of voice recordings for radio, video clips, or flyers, which would help educate the rule-breaker and the public.

“If you do a flyer regarding it, that’s not only educating the person that violated it, but once we hang the flyer up … you’re spreading that within the community,” Suvlu said.

Another reason is the tradition of public-facing punishment in the majority-Inupiat community.

Suvlu says that traditionally, people who committed sexual offenses were marked so that they were identifiable. More recently, rule-breakers who are banned from public buildings are forced to face a public reckoning.

“Whether it’s a child or if it’s an adult, they come to the city council meeting and publicly apologize. So it was kind of along those lines that we were looking at,” she said.

Suvlu noted that if the rule-breakers choose to make flyers, they won’t necessarily have their name revealed. But for videos and voice recordings, she said the public disclosure could play a powerful social role.

For the second violation, rule-breakers have to perform community service. For subsequent violations, they could be subject to fines.

The new ordinance changes many of Utqiagvik’s existing recommendations about masking and quarantining into mandates. People who arrive in Utqiagvik are required to quarantine for 14 days, and masks are required in all public places.

Utqiagvik is experiencing a rapid uptick in cases in recent days. According to the Arctic Slope Regional Association, 12 cases were reported in Utqiagvik between Wednesday and Thursday at noon.