Pulled between pushback and support, Juneau city leaders extend COVID-19 emergency rules

The sun rises over downtown on Dec. 22, 2021, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

With an omicron wave on the horizon, city leaders decided to extend Juneau’s emergency measures to combat COVID-19 through April 30. Community members both praised and pushed back against that extension.

Juneau has a system of rules that it puts in place based on COVID-19 risk levels — things like the city-wide mask mandate, how many people can get together and how businesses operate. They’re designed to slow the spread of the virus. 

The community has been operating under this system since August of 2020. 

Right now the city’s risk level is high. Hundreds of people have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks as the omicron variant barrels through Alaska. 

Bartlett Regional Hospital has had problems with staffing because so many people are out because of exposure to the virus. That means the city is mandating that masks and face coverings must be worn in public spaces indoors or outdoors when people can’t be socially distanced. They’re also limiting indoor gatherings to 50 people if people are unvaccinated. 

When they met on Monday night, Assembly members heard public testimony on extending that system past its expiration date. They’ve extended this system before. They also got dozens of emails in advance of the meeting. About half of the nearly 20 people who spoke up at the meeting were against the idea of an extension. According to the city manager’s office, the email responses were evenly split as well. 

Several people said they would like to leave Juneau and take their business and businesses elsewhere.

“My children don’t deserve to grow up in a town like this,” said Amy Miller.  “We can’t do anything in this cold weather. We’re like, locked in the house, and our only option to go out is if we choose to go out and — we don’t wear masks. So, just imagine how that feels, going into any place and the looks that we get. As if we’re lepers.”

The people who spoke out in favor of the city’s ongoing management of the pandemic said they know people who have died from COVID-19. Or that they wanted to wear masks to protect themselves and others from spreading the virus.

Laura Steele said her daughter isn’t old enough to be vaccinated.

“So keeping these mitigation strategies in place is really important for me and my family in order to feel safe, pretty much leaving my house,” Steele said. “It’s both a health concern and an economic concern for me. I love to support local businesses. That’s something that’s a big value of mine. But I don’t feel comfortable at this point — until my daughter is able to be vaccinated — taking her into a business where people are unmasked.”

Steele told Assembly members that she believes having a mask mandate keeps people who have health concerns comfortable enough to shop in local stores.

At times, public testimony was contentious. 

Some people called assembly members fascists or accused the city of profiting off of the pandemic. Another likened the mask mandate enforcement to the Gestapo — the secret police in Nazi, Germany. The city has issued just one citation for someone failing to wear a mask, and that was early in the pandemic. 

Amanda Spratt also spoke against the extension. She said she thinks the city’s efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 aren’t working against the omicron variant, which is causing case counts to spike regardless of vaccination status.  

“214 cases reported today and just one person in the hospital,” Spratt said. “This no longer constitutes an emergency, not by any stretch of the imagination.”

Others said they worried that after an anemic cruise ship season, local businesses will suffer from the capacity limits on indoor spaces that go into effect at the higher risk levels. Laura Martinson is a local business owner. 

“Just when our businesses are trying desperately to come out of this pandemic, adding another three months onto capacity mandates with a risk level that’s, two years old, doesn’t reflect that we have an 80% vaccination rate — which I’m very proud of,” Martinson said. She asked Assembly members to consider that the Omicron wave could end quickly. She said they could wait and reconsider an extension later.

Juneau’s Emergency Operations Manager Robert Barr and Rebecca Embler, a member of Bartlett Hospital quality team during Juneau’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Centennial Hall on Jan. 15, 2021, in Juneau. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Robert Barr, who leads the city’s COVID-19 response, told Assembly members that they’re discussing an extension now because the legislative process they use — one that requires it to go through two Assembly meetings — is lengthy. He said they’re hopeful the omicron variant will burn fast and bright and then decline just as quickly.

“Honestly, we are just as hopeful as many of our testifiers … that we won’t need to do this again,” Barr said.

Ultimately, Assembly members said they are using the best available science to make their decisions. They passed the emergency measure extension with some changes, including changing the mask requirement to a recommendation when risk level goes down to “minimal.” 

They also changed the definition of what it means for the city to be “fully open.” It used to be that if 97% of the community was eligible to get vaccinated, the city would remove all restrictions. 

Now, it’s not clear what it will take to be fully open because the city will be waiting on guidance from federal and state health officials to decide when it’s time to fully reopen. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the city’s old definition for “fully open.” The city would have removed all restrictions once 97% of the population was eligible to be vaccinated, not once 97% of eligible people were vaccinated.

Rashah McChesney

Daily News Editor

I help the newsroom establish daily news priorities and do hands-on editing to ensure a steady stream of breaking and enterprise news for a local and regional audience.

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