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Bethel Offering $1,000 To Get Tested At Airport, Still Not Enforcing Mandates

Volunteer Lucas Salzbrun hands out swabs and gives directions on how to do a self-swab at the airport coronavirus test site in Bethel, Alaska on April 29, 2020.
Katie Basile

If you get tested for COVID-19 at the Bethel airport, you could now win $1,000. Bethel is doubling down on using incentives, rather than enforcement, for the city’s airport testing mandate. Meanwhile, the number of passengers getting tested at the airport hasn’t changed.

On Monday, Sept. 21, Acting City Manager Lori Strickler announced the first winner of Bethel’s drawing for $1,000. 

“We’re going to shake this box real good, and then we’ll read the name,” Strickler said during the drawing, which was livestreamed on Facebook. “Marie Rivers, awesome!”

In the box were names of 95 Alaska Airlines passengers who arrived in Bethel over the weekend, and either tested for COVID-19 upon arrival or brought proof of a recent negative test result. Strickler said that she plans to draw a new winner every Monday, with the drawing livestreamed on Facebook. She said that the previous incentive program, a $25 gift card for everyone who got tested at the airport, hadn’t been as effective as the city would like.

“The incentive program, when we have gotten numbers from [the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation], hasn't shown an increase in the participation,” Strickler said. “So we're modifying the way that we're delivering those incentives to people, with the hope that a chance to win $1,000 will entice more people to participate.”

Since the city council passed the airport testing mandate on Aug. 31, it has continued to spurn any enforcement of the mandate. Council member Mark Springer said that he would feel irresponsible opening the city up to a lawsuit.

“The city doesn't have the resources, really, to enforce that mandate,” Springer said. “We're not going to send police officers out there and herd people over to get tested. Because as soon as you try something like that, there's going to be an immediate and strong legal challenge.”

Police chief Richard Simmons has also said that his department lacks the staff to man the airport. 

But without enforcement, the mandate doesn’t seem to be making any difference in the number of people who get tested at Bethel’s airport. As of Sept. 22, three weeks after the mandate was enacted, Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation Spokesperson Tiffany Zulkosky said that the percentage of passengers who test at the airport remains between 30% to 75%, depending on the day. 

Some council members say that there’s no proof that the testing mandate isn’t being followed. The mandate says that people are allowed to skip testing at the airport if they have a negative test result from the last 72 hours, or if they quarantine for 14 days. Council member Hugh Dyment said that it’s important to find out why people aren’t testing at the airport.

“Is it because they just had a test in Fairbanks and they're waiting for the results? In which case, they are complying with the law. Or is it because they are refusing to?” Dyment said.

Acting City Manager Strickler said that the city will be able to better answer that question soon. With the new raffle program, people who show a negative test result from the last 72 hours will also be eligible, so the city will learn how many people are following the mandate that way.

Incentives are still only being offered on the weekends. Strickler said that the city is looking to hire an incentives program coordinator to expand the program to all flights. 


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