Police educating public about health mandates

Editor’s note: The story has been updated to include comments from an Alcoholics Anonymous member who attended the meeting in question.

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Days after Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a mandate last month prohibiting meetings of more than 10 people, Homer Police investigated an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that allegedly violated the mandate at the Hillas Building on Pioneer Avenue.

Police left a copy of the health mandate regarding meetings and told the group it appeared they weren’t in compliance, according to Homer Police Chief Mark Robl.

The encounter was at about 8 p.m on March 31 after a person made an anonymous complaint that more than 10 people gathered in a meeting of one of Homer’s 12-step AA groups. Robl said the investigating officer found the group “crammed” into one room with no social distancing of being 6 feet apart or more.

“Our officers said they can’t meet this way,” Robl said.

One of the people attending the meeting disputed that the meeting was crammed. The chairperson of that meeting said that when police came there were six people in the room, including her, and they sat apart. The AA room has about 20 chairs, she said. Volunteers cleaned the room before and after the meeting and avoided things like hugging after saying the Serenity Prayer.

“We were being very conscious,” she said.

Members of AA meetings do not identify themselves, and in respect of that traditon, the Homer News is not identifying the woman who attended the meeting.

In a follow-up email, Robl said police didn’t usher anyone out of the meeting or ensure that they left.

The officers told the meeting attendees they could talk to police if they needed help understanding the mandate. Robl said Lt. Ryan Browning met with AA leaders the next day to advise them on how to hold group meetings and comply with the health mandate.

“We made a point of calling them the day after, telling them how they could comply with the mandates and accomplish their meetings,” Robl said.

Robl said there have been no issues since then with the Hillas Building AA group.

The group that meets in the Hillas Building is one of several AA organizations that meet in town. The Homer Unity Group and a women’s only group have been meeting through online conferencing.

Dunleavy’s issued Health Mandate 11, Social Distancing, on March 27, ordering all Alaskans to stay in place in their homes and prohibiting all but essential businesses from operating. That mandate was extended until April 21. It prohibits any “public or private gatherings that include non-household members, regardless of the number of people involved. This includes, but is not limited to, weddings, faith gatherings, graduations, and funeral events.”

The governor also ordered the closure of non-essential business, defined as “any for-profit, non-profit, or educational entities, regardless of the nature of the service, the function they perform, or corporate or entity structure.” An attachment does define as an essential business those “that can maintain Social Distancing Requirements … and prohibit congregations of no more than 10 people in the business at a time (including employees).” Social distancing requirements include staying 6-feet apart and practicing things like frequent hand washing.

Health Alert 10, issued on April 3, also recommends that people wear face masks in public where it is difficult to maintain social distancing, such as grocery stores and pharmacies.

Robl said police attempt to inform organizations and businesses of health mandates rather than enforce them through a criminal citation. He said police would not charge or arrest anyone without consulting with the district attorney’s office first “unless it’s something particularly egregious.” For example, if someone known to have tested positive for COVID-19 or said they had tested positive deliberately coughed on someone or tried to infect people, police would arrest that person.

“Short of that, it’s hard to envision a situation where we would actually arrest someone for a mandate violation,” Robl said.

Police have had no other complaints about businesses or organizations not complying. They have gotten questions about what businesses can and cannot do. There also have been complaints about people who recently returned to Homer after traveling Outside and who were not quarantining for the mandatory 14 days as set in Health Mandate 10.

“We’ve dealt with a couple of those calls,” Robl said. “Again, we’re contacting those people and educating them — letting them know what the mandate is and what they need to do to comply with it.”

Homer Police issued an advisory and a link to a KBBI radio talk by Robl on how to report suspected violations of the governor’s health mandates on its Facebook page. Those can be emailed to investigations@alaska.gov.

Robl said local businesses have improved their social distancing procedures, such as setting up tape in checkout lines marking off 6-foot intervals. Homer Police also are practicing social distancing at the police station. Officers wear personal protective gear when they have to be closer than 6 feet to the public, such as during a police investigation. If a person is arrested, the police vehicle is cleaned after the arrest and the person is taken to the jail.

The number of local arrests has gone down since the pandemic started, Robl said.

“Part of that is there’s been less criminal activity, which is a blessing,” he said. “There’s also more direction from the court system to issue more summonses in lieu of arrests.”

Police still arrest suspects for driving under the influence, domestic violence assaults or inflicting harm on another, Robl said. He said it’s too early to tell if domestic violence assaults have increased because of more people staying at home or not working.

To minimize quarantine of department staff in the event someone tests positive for COVID-19, Robl set up a rotation schedule that is 12 hours on, 12 hours off, for a week.

“We split the work force basically in half. Half the police officers work one week and half are off,” he said. “… That’s a big change for us. The idea is to isolate them and protect them to the best of our ability.”

For more information on health mandates and other COVID-19, the State of Alaska has set up a special website at https://covid19.alaska.gov.

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com