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On Jan. 25, Bethel City Council is set to consider mask exemptions for student athletes and ATVs on Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway

Olivia Ebertz
YKHC confirmed that earlier this month, basketball tournaments caused an outbreak of COVID-19 in the region.

During their regular meeting on Jan. 25, the Bethel City Council will consider two public safety issues: COVID-19 mitigation and ATVs on the highway.

The Bethel City Council will consider two COVID-19-related measures on Jan. 25. One would allow student athletes to go maskless during sports competitions. The other would move all city council meetings online while COVID-19 surges. Both measures are being considered while rates of COVID-19 are at an all time high in Bethel.

If the mask mandate exemption sounds familiar, that’s because the council voted down a very similar but temporary version of it on Jan. 20. In that temporary version, the council voted against allowing basketball players to remove their masks during last weekend’s games. The vote failed 5-2. This new version would last as long as the council considers COVID-19 an emergency. It would allow the Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD) to make its own rules about athletes wearing masks.

Most members of the public who called into the prior meeting supported allowing basketball players to remove their masks during games. Parents said that they were satisfied with the school district’s mitigation measures for athletes. The school tests local athletes just before the games, and traveling athletes are supposed to test 24 hours before coming to Bethel. Other community members said that masks make it difficult for players to breathe.

Dr. Ellen Hodges of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC) said that she understood that it can be irritating to wear a mask while playing sports, but that doing so is not dangerous. Hodges said that she and YKHC are against allowing athletes to remove their masks for games. She said that the school should be complying with the city’s masking rules to help keep COVID-19 numbers down. She said that the hospital is at risk of overcrowding, and that masks reduce transmission.

“The science on this is crystal clear,” said Hodges.

Hodges also said that basketball games and tournaments have led to the spread of COVID-19 in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, causing hundreds of new cases.

During the weekend of Jan. 8, Scammon Bay held a tournament. The week prior, the village had just three new cases of COVID-19. The week after, new cases jumped to 94. Hooper Bay fans traveled to the tournament and a similar outbreak followed there as well. Cases in Hooper Bay jumped from 14 the week prior to 132 new cases. YKHC confirmed that earlier this month, basketball tournaments caused an outbreak of COVID-19 in the region, but did not say which villages it affected.

During last week’s meeting, some council members also expressed concern that unmasked basketball games will lead to the spread of COVID-19 cases in the school and that it could be forced to move to in-person learning. LKSD Superintendent Kimberly Hankins said that the school will only close to in-person learning if it’s not able to cover enough staff vacancies. On Jan. 24, she said that the district had one staff absence and 19 student absences due to COVID-19.

The mask exemption proposal needs six out of seven council members to pass, because it’s part of an emergency ordinance. During the meeting prior, only council members Mary “Beth” Hessler and Perry Barr voted to allow athletes to remove their masks.

During their Jan. 25 meeting, the council is also set to vote on whether to hold their meetings exclusively over the phone and on Zoom during the current surge in COVID-19 cases.

There is also a measure on the council’s agenda that would once again forbid ATVs from driving on Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway. A new state law took effect on Jan. 1, 2022 that allowed ATVs on all state-owned roads with speed limits of 45 mph or less. Councilmember Rose “Sugar” Henderson has proposed legislation that would take the ATVs back off the highway. The legislation is set to be introduced during the Jan. 25 meeting and voted on in early February.

Click here to join the meeting, which begins at 6:30 p.m.

Olivia was a News Reporter for KYUK from 2020-2022.
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