No mask, no problem: Sitka rejects local mask mandate

Margot O’Connell pushes her niece Theodora’s stroller in downtown Sitka, wearing the go-to accessory unexpectedly making waves across the world this spring: the homemade facemask. But while some cities have approved “mask mandates,” Sitka rejected a recent resolution requiring masks in public places (Berett Wilber/KCAW)

Sitka won’t require people to wear masks in public. A divided Sitka Assembly voted 3 to 4 to nix a resolution last week that would’ve asked people to cover their faces while in public indoor spaces, in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.  

More than 20 Sitkans testified. More than half opposed the order, many citing an infringement on personal freedom, and others noting that, though the resolution was called an “order” it was not enforceable by law. 

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Sponsor Kevin Knox said he modeled the resolution after Anchorage’s recent mask mandate. After it was enacted in June, businesses reported an uptick in mask use, which Knox hoped could be an effect of Sitka’s resolution.  

But during public comment, several people said they wouldn’t comply. Brett Wilcox said he didn’t believe masks were an effective tool to reduce the spread of the virus. Wilcox said no matter the assembly’s decision, he wouldn’t wear one.  

“In this environment of fraudulently hyped-up fear, our children are being trained to believe that the air they breathe might kill them their friends or their family. Lifelong trauma will result,” he said. “I don’t drink my urine or eat my feces and with or without a mandate, I refuse to re-breath my exhaled waste.” 

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The World Health Organization says that surgical masks do not cause CO2 poisoning or oxygen deficiency. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends cloth face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The CDC calls masks the most effective in protecting a community when they’re widely used by people in public settings. 

Of those who testified in favor of the mask order, several said wearing a mask was about empathy, and the least people could do to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Others challenged the lack of scientific evidence presented by opponents of a mask mandate. As the assembly began deliberating it became clear that several members were also not in favor of the resolution, including physician Richard Wein. He said he wears masks when it’s “appropriate” but he wouldn’t support the resolution as written. 

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“It’s a no go, but I do believe masks have a very real usage as we navigate these most interesting times,” he said.

Mayor Gary Paxton, said he didn’t support the resolution. But not because he thinks masks don’t work. 

RELATED: COVID Q&A: What are the legal and medical barriers to wearing a mask under Anchorage’s new mandate?

“We’re challenging the basic freedoms of Americans. And I know this is not an easy discussion,” he said. “I encourage everybody to wear masks whenever they could and whenever they can and whenever they should.”

And sponsor Kevin Knox, who could see that the order was not going to pass, said he hoped Sitkans would still mask up as often as they could. 

RELATED: Alaska’s top doctor urges wearing masks to lawmakers, who ask why the state hasn’t mandated them

Ultimately the mask order failed by a single vote with members Steven Eisenbeisz, Thor Christianson and Kevin Knox voting in favor of the mask order. 

Anchorage, Valdez, Seward and Gustavus have passed mask mandates in the past weeks while similar proposals have failed in Ketchikan and Juneau.

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