The Soldotna City Council voted to recommend — not require — that people wear face masks in city facilities when the central peninsula is experiencing high or substantial transmission of COVID-19. Masks were required in those settings prior to the council’s Wednesday night meeting, when the council approved the change, per a policy adopted over the summer.
That policy required face masks to be worn in indoor city facilities when the central peninsula was at high or substantial risk level for COVID-19. The central peninsula has not dropped out of high risk level since the policy, which applied to places like the Soldotna Public Library, City Hall and the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, was passed in August.
In a Nov. 22 memo to the city council, Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen said that council member Justin Ruffridge, who also owns Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, requested that the policy be put on Wednesday’s meeting agenda for discussion. Doing so, Queen wrote, allowed for the council to review, discuss and amend the policy if desired.
Queen told the council during the body’s Wednesday night meeting that the results of trying to enforce the masking policy have been “somewhat mixed” and that, in response, staff have worked actively to communicate the policy to the public. Still, she said, compliance has “taper(ed)” throughout the hockey season.
“A lot of our staff really prides themselves in doing really effective work and I think as we’ve all seen, this is a situation where we are trying to accomplish something that we’re really going to just fall a little bit short on achieving a high level of compliance,” Queen said.
Ruffridge, who sponsored the initial policy in August, suggested amending the policy to recommend, rather than require, masks in indoor spaces at city facilities.
“It’s hard to know whether or not — especially with variants and changes and things of that nature — whether or not we will have any sustained period of time not in substantial or high risk transmission,” Ruffridge said. “I think what we’ve learned, especially over the last year, is that the actions of the citizens really is not a controllable thing by this body or really by any body.”
Council member Dan Nelson, who used to be the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s emergency manager and similarly helped coordinate COVID-19 vaccine efforts across the borough, pointed out the uncertainty brought about by the discovery of the omicron variant. That variant, first identified in South Africa, was identified as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26 and had been detected in five U.S. states by Thursday evening.
Nelson acknowledged that the City of Soldotna is the only municipality on the central peninsula to have a mask mandate of any kind in place, which can make it difficult to enforce, and said he sees “both sides of the issue,” including that public health officials continue to emphasize the importance of getting vaccinated and wearing face masks.
“I don’t think necessarily it’d be a wise thing to … stop the masks in city buildings, because we know it’s the right thing to do,” Nelson said. “On the other hand, effectiveness and taking things away from city staff are not a good thing.”
Council member Dave Carey suggested bringing proposed changes to the policy back for considering by the council in January, once more was known about omicron. Council member Jordan Chilson agreed, acknowledging both sides of the argument had merit.
“I have a little bit of uncertainty with the way things are starting to unfold, and I don’t think that two months are going to make or break anything,” Chilson said.
In response to concerns about omicron, Ruffridge pointed out that the initial policy as adopted in August was in response to the delta variant, which he said “kicked our butt locally,” but that it’s hard in retrospect to know whether the policy made a significant difference.
“There’s some public feelings of being told what to do in public buildings, and I think there is a sense of sort of sitting by and waiting for something to happen (that we’re not sure of), and yet we’ve lived through a variant already once and I’m not sure what this resolution did,” Ruffridge said.
Ruffridge said the city can still take an active role in helping educate the public about the safety and efficacy of known COVID mitigation strategies, such as wearing masks and getting vaccinated, without requiring compliance, which he said “doesn’t match” the community.
The council ultimately voted 4-2 to make masks optional in indoor spaces in city facilities, with Chilson and Nelson voting in opposition. Wednesday’s full meeting of the Soldotna City Council can be viewed on the city’s website at soldotna.org.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.