On Nov. 24, the Bethel City Council discussed the idea of a lockdown mandate, but only made some minor changes to the existing requirement for COVID-19 testing at the airport.
That mandate was changed to include references to the state’s new health orders. Council member Perry Barr felt that the city was simply limited from taking stronger action against rising COVID-19 numbers.
“I wish that we can do more than what is being mandated right now,” Barr said.
On Nov. 16, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation recommended that the entire Y-K Delta lock down for a month. A number of villages have now ordered such lockdowns. Bethel has passed a “hunker-down” resolution, which asks, but does not require, people to stay home. City Attorney Elizabeth "Libby" Bakalar’s analysis was that the city council might exceed its authority if it tried a stronger measure, which is what YKHC is recommending.
“It's not crystal clear that the city council has the authority to, for example, enact a month-long lockdown,” Bakalar said.
She gave council members the same legal advice when they were considering the airport testing mandate. Because Bethel is a second class city without health powers, Bakalar said that a judge might find its health mandates unconstitutional. But she said that the council could proceed, despite the legal risks, and mandate a lockdown anyway. That’s what they basically did with the airport testing mandate, although that mandate is not being enforced.
Council member Rose “Sugar” Henderson said that she was confused since Gov. Mike Dunleavy has said that he supports municipalities stepping outside their legal boundaries as a second class city. Bakalar said that despite the governor’s message that second class cities can enact whatever mandates they want, the state has not made any reassurances that it would help defend municipalities if they ended up in court.
“If we run into legal trouble, the State of Alaska and the Attorney General's Office isn't going to come and defend us. I mean, it's easy for them to say that, but they don't have the liability concerns to worry about,” Bakalar said.
She said that health mandates, like lockdowns, should come from the state or federal government in order to have stronger legal footing.
Acting City Manager Pete Williams also updated council members on the city’s CARES Act funds. Williams recently approved $200,000 for the Bethel Community Services Foundation. That money will purchase a refrigerator, a vehicle, and food to deliver meals to residents who need it.
Williams reported that, as of Nov. 13, the city still has over $2 million of CARES Act funding remaining. If it does not spend that amount before the Dec. 30 deadline, what remains will have to be returned to the federal government. Williams said that outcome is more than likely.
“We are going to be hard pressed, I think, to spend all this,” Williams said.
Williams also reported that the city now has seven employees running the airport testing incentive program, most of them part-time. He said that they are offering incentives for all Alaska Airlines flights into Bethel. Anyone who flies into Bethel with a negative COVID-19 test, or gets tested at the Bethel airport, will have a chance to win $1,000.
Correction: This story has been corrected to state the accurate amount the city has remaining in its CARES Act budget. The original version of this story stated that the city has $1.3 million of CARES Act funding.