Common Council addresses explosion in COVID-19 cases numbers
Faced with a sobering number of new COVID-19 cases due to community spread, the Nome Common Council in Monday’s regular meeting decided to back City Manager Glenn Steckman in his suggestions to ask non-essential businesses to shut down, to close all restaurants effective Nov. 24 until Dec. 14 and allow take-out only, and to ask bars to limit sales to also take-out only. A steep rise in cases, with 24 new COVID-19 infections identified over the past four days in Nome, prompted the measures.
The meeting itself reflected a new sense of urgency to curb gatherings. Most council members and City Manager Glenn Steckman attended via Zoom, as did a public audience. Present in person - masked and social distanced- was Mayor John Handeland, Councilman Mark Johnson and City Clerk Bryant Hammond.
The agenda was light, but in response to the spike in COVID cases, much of the discussion centered on swift action to flatten the curve and how to help those businesses — bars and restaurants — that will have economic losses due to the forced closure.
In prior meetings public voices concerned with government overreach were heard when the City tightened up travel, testing and quarantine requirements. However, in last Monday’s meeting, there was broad support for Nome’s approach thus far to be vigilant and to err on the side of caution.
During citizen’s comments, Uly Hall called in and asked all to do what medical providers ask: social distance, stay in a small bubble, avoid large gatherings. “Recently our schools for our children have closed from an onsite learning model to a home school format for the last month of the fall semester. In essence, we have asked our kids to not mingle in large groups, social distance themselves from each other and give up a few liberties,” he said.
At the same time, he said, bars are allowed to be open. “I am at a loss for the rationale involved in asking our kids to not mingle and many other entities to shut down that involve far less behavioral risks during this current case surge, while at the same time we are not formally asking or mandating the bars to follow suit for a couple weeks, so our local hospital can catch up to the task at hand and our curve rate can lessen to a manageable level.”
Others felt the same way. Melissa Ford called in to say that she did not share the negative comments that were pervasive in prior council meetings in regard to steps the city manager has taken regarding testing and quarantine mandates. She encouraged bar closures and asked that CARES Act funds be given to servers of these establishments. Anna Ashenfelter called in and also asked to close the bars and to instate a mask mandate. Barb Gray threw her support behind the council and said to close whatever business is spreading the virus but give them financial support. Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle also recommended bar and church closures and a mask mandate. Hattie Keller asked the council to shut down the city and reminded them that Nome is the region’s gate keeper and can avoid the spread of the virus to outlying communities.
In later discussion, City Manager Steckman pointed out repeatedly that the Council had taken out language in the emergency ordinance that would allow him to close bars or curb liquor sales. Mayor Handeland called for a special Council meeting on Wednesday to vote on an ordinance that would prohibit the sale of alcohol in Nome for on-site consumption until Dec. 14 to reduce the impact and spread of COVID-19. The most recent community spread was linked to a bar. Handeland said that not all bars are alike. “When this thing came up a week ago, two establishments shut down immediately without direction from the city,” he said. “But it’s unfortunate that we have to take the next step.” All council members agreed that the next step had to be taken, though. Councilwoman Jennifer Reader struggled with it. She said she was deeply disturbed about the situation. “We live in America, where people should be doing what they want to do,” she said. But, she said, while she doesn’t want the council to go too far in telling people how to run their businesses, she saw that the council is responsible for the safety of the community. “I would’ve preferred that people follow the rules.”
Councilman Mark Johnson said that the Council needs to address in short order a way to help the employees of the affected businesses that will be forced to shut down with possibly another round of CARES Act grants. This was also to be discussed in the Wednesday special meeting.
Councilman Jerald Brown voiced his dismay with non-compliance of city mandates and said that there need to be consequences if people are knowingly spreading the virus. Nome Police Chief Mike Heintzelman told the Nome Nugget in a subsequent email that there are indeed some refuse to comply even after being told they have tested positive for COVID-19. “Citations can be issued by officers for failure to comply, however, we are simply asking everyone to take the proper precautions and guidance from medical personnel,” Heintzelman said.
“As the number of COVID-19 cases rise, First Responders are put in greater jeopardy. An exposure could literally shut down our ability to respond to calls for service,” he stated. “As COVID-19 cases spike in Nome, we at the Nome Police Department hope all city residents follow proper safety precautions to keep this disease in check. These small inconveniences will keep others and yourself safe for the upcoming holidays.”
State of the schools
Aside from COVID, Nome Public Schools Superintendent Jamie Burgess delivered her annual state of the schools report to the Council. She reported that due to the most recent COVID outbreak, Nome schools shifted into the red zone. “We hope to have students back on January 11,” she said. There is no COVID case amongst Nome students. Despite COVID, Nome Elementary students are adapting well to mask wearing. NES has launched an Inupiaq immersion kindergarten class, which is doing well. She reported that NES sees high teacher retention and all teachers, except for two special ed teachers, returned to work at NES. As challenges she listed that when the younger students returned after an eight-month hiatus from school, they saw a lot of behavioral issues. “The summer slide was amplified,” she said. This also held true for middle schoolers where teachers encountered higher than usual behavioral issues. The lack of sports activities also impacted academic engagement as in normal times, participation in team sports is tied to academic performance. “Many kids do their homework in order to play, but that is now taken away from them,” Burgess said.
A lot of students opted to utilize the Extensions homeschool program or the @home in Nome, a virtual online learning program. Burgess reported an explosion in homeschool enrollment, from the usual 15-20 students to 60 students this semester due to COVID. “This has saved us financially this year,” she said. But this also comes with challenges as one full time teacher and one assistant are busy teaching parents how to adjust their students to homeschooling.
As challenges ahead she foresees trouble in recruiting teachers if the district sees teachers retiring or leaving in the next year. She expects significant cuts from the state legislature and said it is frustrating to have aging infrastructure and very little support from the state for capital improvements.
In other reports, NJUS manager Ken Morton said that NJUS’ request for CARES Act funds from the City to replace failing streetlight bulbs is not consistent with CARES Act rules and NJUS work with the city manager to fund a ‘smaller wishlist.’
In Mayor’s comments, Handeland thanked the Governor to facilitate a meeting between city officials and the Commissioner of the Dept. of Health and Social Services Adam Crum for guidance on COVID issues. On a sad note, he reported the death of Ron Engstrom, two days shy of his 83rd birthday. Engstrom was a former council member and Nome Volunteer Fire Dept. volunteer.