Leaders on the Kenai Peninsula express skepticism about masks and the virus

An empty chamber as seen from a lectern
The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly chamber (Photo from Kenai Peninsula Borough website)

At their respective meetings earlier this month, Kenai, Soldotna and Homer council and assembly members had very different conversations about the same joint resolution for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Without any real muscle, the resolution encouraged — not mandated — that residents follow CDC guidelines, like mask wearing and social distancing. The mayors of Kenai, Soldotna and the borough sponsored the resolution to show a united commitment to coronavirus caution. Homer was later added to the group.

Ultimately, all three bodies passed the resolution. But the conversations were very different. 

“From some of the science that I’ve been reading, the face coverings aren’t functional and don’t provide the safety that one would think that they do,” said Glenese Pettey, a member of the Kenai City Council, at the Sept. 2 council meeting. Pettey was one of three members of the council who voted “no” on the joint resolution, saying it was too “open-ended.”

Assemblyman Robert Peterkin advocated a similar position at the meeting.

“I’m not in favor of masks, period.” he said. “I don’t think they help, I think there’s another side of this.”

The CDC recommends the use of masks, which are being relied on internationally to slow the pandemic. A wide body of research has shown mask use mitigates the spread of the virus. 

Councilman Jim Glendening expressed concern that the resolution has no set ending date, and also voted “no.”

Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel assured him the resolution isn’t binding.

“I’m certain that if things get pretty weird,” he added, “if our hospitalizations go up, you can’t sit there and bury your head in the sand.”

Ultimately, the resolution passed, with four “yes” votes and three “nos.”

The city also no longer refers to COVID-19 as a pandemic. In a June 3 meeting, Peterkin motioned to replace “pandemic” with “health emergency” in a resolution extending the city’s disaster emergency declaration. That passed with unanimous consent. “Pandemic” hasn’t appeared in a council agenda or meeting minutes since. 

The Soldotna City Council meeting, on Sept. 23, saw a unanimous vote in favor of the resolution. None of the council members at that meeting spoke against urging residents to exercise coronavirus caution.

Councilmember Justin Ruffridge was the first to speak during the discussion.

“I like where this is going,” he said. “I’m not certain if there’s things where this maybe doesn’t address where it should’ve gone a little bit further. One of the things that I happen to be concerned about more than anything, whether it’s masks or social distancing, is the protection of elderly populations within our communities. And I think that’s something that maybe gets missed a little bit.”

Council members Paul Whitney and Lisa Parker said they wished more people wore masks inside.

“I know trying to get something like that here on the Kenai Peninsula will never fly,” said Parker, “but I would hope that businesses take that into consideration as they look at generating more revenue. If they are making it comfortable for us to go into our establishments, then we’ll do it.”

The conversation ended with six “yes” votes.

The debate over the resolution at the Kenai Peninsula borough assembly meeting, Sept. 15, was the longest of the three.

Councilman Tyson Cox asked Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce whether he would hold his employees to the same standards that he was advocating in the resolution.

“Because it’s kind of like me, as a parent, it doesn’t work very well if I ask somebody to do it but I don’t do it myself,” Cox said. “So is that what we’re doing?”

In response, Pierce said he thinks the borough has done a good job in flattening the curve, noting that, as a second-class borough, it lacks the power to make healthcare mandates.

Pierce said he supports the safeguards recommended by the CDC, but also seemed somewhat uncertain about his stance on the virus.

“You know, I’m a skeptic, too,” he said. “I sit back and wonder if this is all real. But I guess what I’d say — I’m not a doctor. But we have a responsibility to deliver some messaging.”

Assemblyman Jesse Bjorkman cast the sole “no” vote.

“I think it’s important that we give people all the information that they need about COVID-19, and what it does,” he said. “How likely you are to catch it. How likely you are to get ill from it. And then I think it’s also important for us to not instigate more fear about this pandemic and what it is and how it’s affecting people.”

Bjorkman noted that case and death rates are down on the peninsula and said the borough should “move past” the measures that have been taken to prevent the spread so that schools and businesses can fully open back up.

“Even if we just parrot the information in this resolution,” he said, “it’s one more voice saying, ‘You should be afraid. You should not do things.’”

Assembly President Kelly Cooper acknowledged that conversations about virus precautions have been sources of controversy at previous meetings and in the community at large.

“Our community’s really divided,” Cooper said. “You have people that are completely adamant that you do not step out of that house without a mask, and there are those that are completely adamant that you’re taking away their liberty. And the right answer is probably somewhere in between, if we could not politicize it and those mandates have changed a little bit as the numbers go down.”

The resolution passed six to one. Tensions reached a fever pitch when, in a subsequent conversation about the borough returning to in-person meetings, Pierce threatened to leave the meeting early.

Homer’s City Council also passed the joint resolution, at its most recent meeting. The resolution passed immediately and with unanimous consent.

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