How to manage the city's coronavirus response dominated much of the Bethel City Council meeting on July 14.
CARES Act Funding
The Council passed a budget for the $8.4 million of federal CARES Act funds received by the city. The budget includes $2 million for grants to Bethel businesses and non-profits, $200,000 for personal protective equipment for city staff and the community, and $350,000 to house travelers who fly into Bethel and need to quarantine.
That appropriation can be used by school districts to temporarily house teachers in Bethel. Doug Boyer, Director of Operations at the Lower Kuskokwim School District, said that many villages are requiring teachers who fly into the region to quarantine for two weeks in Bethel before continuing onto their communities.
The city will soon begin advertising temporary, paid positions to manage the city’s coronavirus response.
Water and Sewer Service
Bethel residents who have unpaid water and sewer bills might have to pay up soon. The city’s emergency ordinance for the coronavirus pandemic has waived collection of these bills since March, resulting in over $600,000 in unpaid money. Unless the city council renews the emergency ordinance, it will expire on July 25. If not renewed, bills will be sent to collection, and service could be turned off.
City council member Alyssa Leary works in public health, and wants the council to take action before the deadline to avoid people's water being shut off during the current health crisis.
“What did we all learn? How to wash our hands a few months ago, right? Twenty seconds, sing happy birthday. And now we’re going to shut off their water and send them to collection? That is one of the number one things we should be looking at in how we spend some CARES money,” Leary said.
Requested City Health Mandates
The role of the city in controlling the pandemic also came up when the President and CEO of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation Dan Winkelman called in to the meeting to ask the council to pass a travel ordinance to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“No one else is going to do it," Winkelman said. "So we must use the tools that are available to protect our community and our region.”
Winkelman said that YKHC's lawyers believe that under the state’s current health mandates and Alaska law, the city has the power to require travelers to either present proof of having received a negative test within a certain timeframe before traveling, to get tested at the Bethel airport, or to quarantine upon arrival for a certain period of time.
“The key is that an emergency exists, which it does. Our solution is reasonable, which it will be. And that we are not impeding Alaskans and others from traveling, which we aren’t,” Winkelman explained.
Winkelman offered to share a draft ordinance with the city.
Democratic Alaska House Representative from Bethel Tiffany Zulkosky also called in. She supported Winkelman’s proposal and encouraged the city to take additional measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 by requiring masks in public when physical distancing cannot be maintained, and by setting limits on how many people can be inside businesses where people congregate.
“The unfortunate thing about this global pandemic is that we can never know when somebody who is infected will have a serious illness to the virus or could lead to life-threatening circumstances,” Zulkosky said.
New Police Chief
Mayor Perry Barr, a former Alaska State Trooper, swore in Bethel’s new police chief, who is in town but still in self-quarantine. Chief Richard Simmons comes to Bethel after serving the Fort Worth Police Department in Texas for 25 years. There he was a lieutenant and commander of the Forensics and Economic Crimes Section. Quarantining in Bethel until July 17, he attended the meeting remotely via Zoom.