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Following Bethel City Council vote, student athletes will have to keep their masks on during games

Olivia Ebertz
Amid Bethel’s largest ever surge in COVID-19 case counts, the council voted not to exempt student athletes from its mask mandate.

During their Jan. 25 meeting, the Bethel City Council voted not to allow student athletes in Bethel to remove their masks for competitions. It also voted to hold its meetings exclusively over Zoom and on the phone. Plus, it could soon vote to forbid ATVs from driving on Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway.

Amid Bethel’s largest ever surge in COVID-19 case counts, the council voted not to exempt student athletes from its mask mandate. Even though the majority voted in favor of the exemption 4-3, as an emergency ordinance it needed six of seven votes to pass. The vote placed the council in opposition to most of the parents, coaches, players, and community members who called into the meeting in support of the exemption.

The health care workers who called in said that they did not support athletes removing their masks during this current surge, which they say could be on the decline in just a few weeks. But community members are doubling down with pleas to let athletes go without masks, saying it’s time to move on from this particular COVID-19 mitigation measure.

Dolly Boney, a mother of two Bethel Regional High School students, wanted to let the athletes play without masks. She said that COVID-19 has already been here so long that it’s time to go on with our lives. She said that COVID-19 mitigation measures have put her culture at risk.

“Our region has stopped participating in many activities that are extremely important to us as people: potlucks, Eskimo dances, funerals, weddings. Basketball is not just a sport for our regions, it has grown to become part of our culture,” said Boney.

Although the proposal was about whether or not to allow athletes to shed their masks, not about whether or not to let them play basketball, it stoked a deeper fear in Boney.

“I feel our traditions have been stripped from us,” said Boney.

Boney also said that she feels she’s done her part to slow the spread of COVID-19, and that now it’s time to move on. She and her kids are vaccinated. Many parents shared that same sentiment. They cited national and local health care officials, who say if you are vaccinated and boosted, it means you’re much less likely to get severely ill if you contract COVID-19. The parents said that it’s no longer their job to protect unvaccinated people from contracting the virus.

But one parent, Tania Erickson-Grant, said that it’s not just about protecting the unvaccinated from COVID-19. She said that although her child is fully vaccinated, she’s also immunocompromised. She said that masks make sports competitions a safe place for her daughter.

“My child, she's not starting at 100% health-wise with everybody else. So getting sick could impact her more severely than others. And I think there should be a place for those kinds of kids within sports,” said Erickson-Grant.

The community members in favor of the exemption say that the Lower Kuskokwim School District has effective mitigations already in place. Athletes get tested just before the games. Traveling athletes must test before they travel to Bethel. Plus, everyone who attends the games must be vaccinated, and each player can only invite four guests.

Two council members who voted in favor of the mask exemption reversed their votes from last week, when the council considered a temporary version of this same proposal. Councilmember Rose “Sugar” Henderson changed her mind after attending the home games this past weekend.

“Honestly, it broke my heart watching those athletes struggle to breathe and play the game,” said Henderson.

Chief of Staff for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, Dr. Ellen Hodges, said that it’s safe for athletes to play with masks.

Councilmember Eric Whitney also changed his vote. He said that he would prefer a stricter version of the exemption, one that would allow students to remove their masks only if new case counts are below a certain threshold. He said that he doesn’t want anyone to contract the virus, announcing that he himself is currently COVID-19 positive.

“It is a real thing, and it's not that fun,” said Whitney.

But ultimately he voted in favor of the exemption as it stood, saying that "at some point, you just have to give the people what they want." Councilmembers Perry Barr and Mary “Beth” Hessler also voted in favor of the exemption.

Two council members who voted against the exemption, Mayor Mark Springer and Vice Mayor Conrad “CJ” McCormick, said that they were voting for the front-facing workers of Bethel who couldn’t make it to the meeting. Councilmember Michelle DeWitt also voted against the exemption.

Also during their Jan. 25 meeting, the council voted 6-1 to move its meetings out of city hall and onto Zoom during the surge in COVID-19 case counts. Hessler voted against the ordinance.

Lastly, the council voted to introduce a piece of legislation about ATVs. On Jan. 1, 2022, a new state law took effect making it legal to drive ATVs on Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway. But now, Henderson wants to forbid it once more. The council has adopted the issue into its agenda, and is set to hold a public hearing about it during its next meeting.

Olivia Ebertz is a News Reporter for KYUK. She also works as a documentary filmmaker. She enjoys learning languages, making carbs, and watching movies.
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