Community members praised and admonished the Juneau Assembly on Wednesday before it extended emergency measures to combat COVID-19. Most who weighed in during public testimony wanted the city’s framework for managing risk and restrictions to end.
Before opening up public testimony, Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon spent some time explaining what the legislation wasn’t.
“And just to make it clear, we are not passing a hunker down, close business (measure) tonight,” Weldon said. “Seems to be a common theme in some of our emails.”
The emergency ordinance the Assembly passed basically maintains the system that’s been in place for almost a year now. These are the rules that ratchet up and down with the community’s COVID risk level on masking, how many people can get together and how businesses operate.
Stay-at-home orders are still a possibility at the highest risk level. But since vaccines rolled out over the winter, risk levels and rules were getting more and more relaxed — up until cases spiked in the last few weeks, driven mostly by unvaccinated residents getting sick.
The shutdown theme still came up several times during the public hearing. Fifteen people testified. One person suggested dropping the fines, two encouraged stricter rules for travelers entering the community, three were supportive and nine opposed the extension.
The supporters had personal and public safety in mind.
“I also highly encourage you guys to stay the course, at least for the time being,” Kathleen Harper said. “And encourage people who haven’t actually read the mitigation strategies to go on the website and read them because … people make them sound so dire, and they really aren’t.”
Zachary Warmbrodt was one of those dire people.
“I feel like, if you vote yes on this to continue it, there’s nothing but a group of tyrants sitting in those chairs,” Warmbrodt said. “I sometimes question whether or not I live in United States of America, which is supposed to be free, or communist China or Nazi Germany, you know, with some of the things you’re pushing.” You’re trying to coerce people into being vaccinated and making it to the point where they feel they can’t even live in day-to-day society without, you know, showing their papers, which was an old Soviet thing.”
Warmbrodt’s rhetoric was not typical. But his preference was. He urged the Assembly to let people choose for themselves what precautions and risks they’re willing to take.
Rachelle Grossardt said she worked for the school system last year and saw firsthand how isolation and masking hurt kids’ mental health.
“There are a lot of students suffering from anxiety, and depression, suicide idealization, and suicide attempts — amongst, like, my students,” she said. “And we’re unable to help them when we are so masked up, and isolated from one another, and we can’t touch one another, we can’t be around one another, we can’t convey empathy and compassion by looking at one another’s faces.”
Bartlett Regional Hospital officials have reported a pandemic-related surge in mental health crises among kids. Grossardt said parents ought to have the right to weigh out the risk themselves of their kids getting COVID-19 against the impacts of mitigation measures.
Sterling Salisbury said that at this point, the pandemic and mandates are being driven by people age 12 and up who choose not to get vaccinated.
“And that is totally their right, and as an American, they should have that right,” Salisbury said. “So don’t, I guess, punish everyone because of the Americans that are choosing not to be vaccinated. … I’m tired of being locked down. I’m tired of all these mandates. At some point, we have to move on.”
It wasn’t discussed much during the meeting, but a defined end point and the idea of letting personal choices prevail are in the latest version of the city’s COVID-19 framework.
Deputy City Manager Mila Cosgrove touched on it during a community update on Thursday.
“We keep getting asked, ‘What does the end look like for the current pandemic we find ourselves in?’ And I think there is some basic logic, if you will, in the idea that once everybody who wants to can be vaccinated, that we should be taking that as one of our factors.”
The new rules say that when 97% of the community can be fully vaccinated, the community will fully reopen. For Juneau, that basically means everyone aged 2 and up.
The measures were adopted with one last-minute change based on a suggestion from Dan DeBartolo.
“I notice one thing that’s still on the docket are fines,” DeBartolo said. “With a community that’s like, 70% vaccinated, and you see a pretty strong effort going on overall, maybe being punitive in this next iteration is not necessary. Maybe it’s time to trust the community, that we have a good grasp of what we’re supposed to do, and what most people should do.”
Assembly member Carole Triem said that was a good point. No one objected to her motion to ditch $25 fines for breaking the rules.
Anchorage had problems with some businesses flouting its COVID-19 rules. Officials there issued escalating fines until the businesses complied.
On Thursday, Cosgrove said Juneau hasn’t issued any fines, though it’s had some “very direct conversations.”
City Manager Rorie Watt said Juneau is collaborative and that he’s looking to people to do the right thing.
“I don’t think the fine was ever a material part of our strategy. It was nominal to begin with,” Watt said. “I certainly don’t think community activity, participation has been driven by fear of the fine. I think good community behavior has been driven by care for community.”
If a real problem comes up, he said he’ll go back to the Assembly.