Bethel mandates face masks in public and airport testing

A  man in a blue hospital gown and a blue surgical mask passes a swab to a man in a blue hoody from across the table
YKHC Nurse Kerry Cobbledick hands out swabs at a station set up for coronavirus testing outside of the Alaska Airlines airport terminal in Bethel, Alaska. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

There are new rules during the pandemic for anyone residing in or traveling to Bethel. Passengers who get off at the Alaska Airlines terminal in Bethel will now be required to test for COVID-19. Plus, face masks will be required for anyone occupying a public space. The city is still working on the finer details of enforcement.

At a special meeting on Aug. 31, the Bethel City Council passed two emergency ordinances after listening to much of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation’s top brass, the Association of Village Council Presidents, and community members from around the Y-K Delta advocate for action.  

Read more stories about how the coronavirus is affecting rural Alaska.

Roberta Charles, tribal administrator of the Lower Yukon community of Emmonak, reminded council members that their decision would impact more than just Bethel.

“We don’t have all the resources within our healthcare system, as well, to handle a pandemic like this,” Charles said. “We depend on you in our hub, and things you put into place that’s then going to affect our communities.” 

The decision was unanimous. All seven council members voted to mandate airport testing, which will require passengers arriving in Bethel to either show proof of a negative result, get tested upon arrival, or quarantine for 14 days.

Council members focused on two questions in their deliberations: Will YKHC be able to handle the increased number of tests, and how will the city enforce the testing mandate?

YKHC Chief of Staff Dr. Ellen Hodges assured council members that the hospital has enough test kits for the approximately 100 passengers on each daily Alaska Airlines flight.

“We think that Alaska Airlines may increase this and add another flight, a couple days a week for three days a week, and we strongly believe that we can support that as well,” Hodges said.

Hodges acknowledged the turnaround time for test results has been longer lately, because of the increased number of cases in Anchorage. YKHC sends its test samples to be analyzed by the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. While negative results are sometimes taking longer than a week, she said that positives are usually returned within three days. YKHC’s Dr. Elizabeth Bates added that they are soon adding 60 full-time-equivalent staff to bolster testing capacity. 

The airport testing mandate will become effective Wednesday, Sept. 2. The city council did not let the potentially messy details of enforcement slow them down during the Aug. 31 meeting. 

“I wouldn’t want to make the perfect the enemy of the good,” said council member Hugh Dyment. “We could pass this now and then, and then work on enforcement later.”

Council member Mark Springer offered an idea that would not require enforcement officers.

“We’re not going to have test police up there,” Springer said. “However, we do have ordinances in place that regulate taxi cabs.”

At Springer’s suggestion, the council adopted a section that will require taxi drivers to check that passengers have proof of a test before allowing them in their vehicle. This could be either a negative test result from before their flight, or a test receipt from YKHC at the airport. Spokesperson Tiffany Zulkosky said that YKHC would be able to start providing test receipts by Sept. 2. 

Council members also want Alaska Airlines to announce the testing mandate to incoming passengers, and YKHC said that it could provide COVID-19 educational pamphlets that could be included in seat-back pockets on planes.

But in case there is a need for stricter enforcement in the future, the city council allowed itself broad powers. The ordinance reads “the City reserves the right to use all available enforcement options, including Alaska Statutes, to ensure compliance with this mandate.” Council member Michelle DeWitt said that the city could wait to see how people respond to the mandate.

“Initially, if we found that folks were complying, and maybe move into more of, like, a citation level of enforcement,” DeWitt said.

In the same meeting, the council also unanimously voted to mandate face masks in public places. The mask mandate will be effective immediately. Mark Springer summed it up succinctly: “Two words: masks work.”

The mask mandate applies to any indoor public space, including taxis or buses. Masks are required outdoors as well, if people cannot stay 6 feet apart. City Attorney Elizabeth “Libby” Bakalar suggested some reasonable flexibility on those rules.

“I don’t think it’s the council or the city’s intent to be taking people up by the scruff of their neck if they’re seen out in public within 5-and-a-half feet of another person on the boardwalk or street not wearing a mask,” Bakalar said. “I mean, I think it’s a reasonable compliance thing.”

Little was mentioned about legal concerns that council members have brought up in the past about enforcing the testing and mask mandates without health powers. The wording of the ordinance was worked out between Bakalar and YKHC based on the rationale that the state has delegated this power to local governments. 

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