Public Media for Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Amid Bethel's largest surge in COVID-19 cases, city council votes to let its emergency measures expire

Christine Trudeau
During their Feb. 8 meeting, the Bethel City Council voted to strike down nearly all of its COVID-19 emergency ordinances.

During their Feb. 8 meeting, the Bethel City Council voted not to renew nearly all of its COVID-19 emergency ordinances. It also moved to table a vote on a measure that would once again ban ATVs from Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway.

The Bethel City Council voted not to renew its mask mandate, its testing and quarantine mandate, and its measure that prevents water shutoff for people who can’t pay their bills during the COVID-19 pandemic. As emergency measures, these all required a super majority of six out of seven votes to pass. None of them reached that threshold. Now, they’re all set to expire on Feb. 18. The Bethel City Council vote comes amid the largest ever surge of new COVID-19 cases in the Y-K Delta.

It’s the first time the mask mandate has completely expired since March 2020. Over the summer of 2021, the council voted to allow vaccinated residents of Bethel to go maskless in indoor spaces, though that allowance was rescinded again in August when the delta variant hit.

Out of all the emergency measures on the agenda, the mask mandate drew the most ire from Bethel residents. The vast majority of people who came to speak out about the mask mandate were against it.

Out of the 14 residents who came to speak on the mask mandate, only two wanted the council to keep it.

One of those was Dr. Ellen Hodges, the Chief of Staff at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation.

Hodges said that although she believes the current surge in cases due to the omicron variant has offered early signs of being on the decline around the state, she said that the Y-K Delta’s case rate is not yet declining.

“We have nearly 900 active cases in the region, and that's increased from the previous week. So we're still up, we have not yet reached our peak. Masking definitely works to reduce the transmission of COVID,” said Hodges.

But community member Ana Hoffman says those cases aren’t serious and spoke against the mandate. Hoffman said that she calculated the rate of hospitalization for COVID-19 cases based on the situation reports from YKHC. She said that the hospitalization rate in the Y-K Delta is only half a percent. Hoffman said that COVID-19 might be here to stay, but it’s no longer an emergency.

“Emergency ordinances are intended to be imposed for limited periods of time. It is time to acknowledge that the hundreds of cases in circulation are largely not resulting in severe illness,” said Hoffman.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does say that early data suggests that the omicron variant is milder than previous variants. Hodges has said in previous city council meetings that hospitalizations usually lag behind new case counts.

The city council members who voted to let mask mandate expire include Perry Barr, Mary “Beth” Hessler, Rose “Sugar” Henderson, and Eric Whitney. Those who voted for the mandate were Michelle DeWitt, Mayor Mark Springer and Vice Mayor Conrad “CJ” McCormick.

Council member Eric Whitney said that his rationale for voting against the mask mandate was that he thinks the current COVID-19 surge could decline by the time the mandate actually expires on Feb. 18.

“I'm hoping that we are actually in a decline and it should decline quickly,” said Whitney.

Two other council members said the same thing, Barr and Henderson. COVID-19 numbers are declining around the state and the country, but that’s not true in the Y-K Delta. Cases were up in the region last week by 23.41% from the week prior.

Mayor Mark Springer said that he believes that having a mask mandate is more beneficial to most community members than not having one.

“I think that masks are effective, I think that they have been good at preventing more than just COVID-19,” said Springer.

The Bethel City Council also voted to let its measure that prevents water shutoff for those who haven’t been able to pay their water bills during the pandemic expire in a 3-4 vote.

The Bethel City Manager said that those who haven’t been paying their bills would have about two months to get settled up before their water gets shut off.

The mandate that would have required all travelers to Bethel to test for the virus and unvaccinated travelers to quarantine also did not pass in a 3-4 vote.

The one emergency ordinance that did pass is called the Declaration of Emergency. It says that the council members believe that the pandemic is an emergency. The declaration allows the city manager slightly extended powers, and had opened the city to emergency grants, though the Bethel City Attorney said that it’s unclear if it still does. The council voted to extend the Declaration of Emergency while the attorney figures out if any funding is still tied to the declaration. It’s now set to expire in two months.

And finally, in a separate matter, ATVs will still be allowed on Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway for the time being. The council voted to send the legislation that would ban them from the highway to the Public Safety and Transportation Commission for further review. The Bethel City Clerk said that it will be added to their agenda for the Mar. 2 meeting. Once the commission looks at it, it will be back on the city council’s agenda.

This story has been updated to reflect that the council voted to let the mandates expire rather than to strike them down.

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