For the first time in nearly 15 months, Juneau’s Chamber of Commerce met for lunch, in person. About 55 people gathered, unmasked, to hear U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, speak.
McHugh Pierre, the president and CEO of Goldbelt, Inc., is on the chamber board. He said they decided to host an in-person lunch after looking at the community’s COVID-19 vaccination level — just over 60% of the total population is fully vaccinated.
Pierre said Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Thursday is a kind of reward for social responsibility among community members, but it was also a little awkward.
“You definitely see people trying to get used to engaging,” he said. “A lot of people are unsure, sometimes they don’t know if they want to fist bump or shake hands or hug. And I think really it’s out of respect. It’s respect for their friends and neighbors to make sure that they don’t step over someone’s boundary inadvertently.”
The event was unmasked, though staff for the lunch wore them. Pierre said that was refreshing, too — especially for members who have been keeping each other company over Zoom for more than a year.
“I love seeing everyone smile. You know, we’ve learned to show it with our eyes, but now we can do it like we used to. Use our entire face for expressions and it just feels good to welcome everyone and see the joy,” he said.
Young only spoke for about five-and-a-half minutes, but he said that was purposeful.
“I was an old schoolteacher. You know the attention span of a fifth-grader is five minutes. You know what the attention span of an adult is? Four,” he said to laughter from the audience.
Young spent about 30 minutes taking questions about everything from energy and mining to tourism to the job market and locally grown foods. Pierre asked about how Young advocates nationally for rare earth mineral mining in Alaska, especially given the nation’s dependence on China for them.
Young said this is a huge issue and that the country needs Alaska to develop its mineral resources responsibly. He referenced President Joe Biden’s 30-30 executive order, which promises to protect 30 percent of U.S. land and oceans by 2030.
“I talked to him and said ‘you’re n— I didn’t say ‘he’s nuts,’ you can’t tell that to the President. But I sure thought it. But why not take an inventory of what’s on those lands first. If it’s highly mineralized, that’s not included,” Young said.
State Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, asked about the prospects of getting an infrastructure bill through Congress given rocky negotiations between President and Senate Republicans. Biden announced a roughly $2 trillion plan in April that would fund U.S. infrastructure but most Republicans have balked at the price tag.
“I want to say there will be a bill. I’m not sure yet if it’s going to look like a polka-dotted horse or what,” Young said. “I really get irritated with the president right now because people are pushing him to do things that should be in infrastructure and it’s a huge cost. And the public wants infrastructure, but they want bridges and roads, rails and planes, ships and harbors. They don’t want removal of lead pipes — good as it is — from people’s homes in an infrastructure bill. They don’t want all of that other stuff.”