Bethel has officially declared a local emergency disaster. In an emergency meeting on March 25, Bethel City Council unanimously adopted the emergency ordinance. Aside from requesting funding from the state and federal governments, it issued strong health recommendations to Bethel residents. City administration explained what those recommendations are and how the city plans to enforce them.
Bethel’s new city attorney, Libby Bakalar, listed the main guidelines that the emergency ordinance advises and requests.
“Stop all non-essential travel into Bethel,” Bakalar said. “And if travel is absolutely necessary, to self-quarantine for 14 days on arrival, to stay at home as much as possible, and to stay away from each other as much as possible.”
Bakalar said that the city was careful not to go beyond recommendations because a second class city, like Bethel, has limited powers over public health.
“Exercising health powers we don’t have, like shutting down airports, is a problem because of constitutional concerns like the right to liberty and the right to travel, and not to mention state statutes,” Bakalar said.
But Acting City Manager Bill Howell said that the state has those powers, and the governor has issued a number of health mandates. On March 23, Gov. Mike Dunleavy mandated that anyone entering Alaska from out-of-state must self-quarantine for 14 days.
“People failing to adhere to those quarantine guidelines, you know, that is a legal order by the governor of the state of Alaska during a disaster and it could be potentially enforced by law enforcement,” Howell said.
In other words, the city can enforce the governor’s mandates. Howell explained how Bethel police would do that.
“With any police department enforcement action, it obviously starts with a complaint,” Howell said. “So somebody would need to call it in as a concern, and we would investigate it and take appropriate action.”
On a realistic note, Bakalar said that the City of Bethel, like any government, doesn’t have the manpower to enforce those mandates for every single person in town.
“At a certain point with this, as it is with many things in society, we are simply on an honor system,” Bakalar said.
The city also changed its mind about keeping the Bethel Transit System open. Starting Thursday, March 26, buses will shut down operations for at least 14 days.