Council hears diverging opinions on emergency ordinance
In an more than two-hour long work session of the Nome Common Council at Old St. Joe’s hall, the Council invited public input on the question whether the panel should rescind the emergency ordinance that gives the City Manager sweeping powers to “take necessary actions to reduce the impact and spread of COVID-19 throughout the City of Nome.” The ordinance is set to expire on July 14 and the Council will have to decide on extending it or letting it sunset.
In order to accommodate social distancing, the meeting took place at Old St. Joe’s rather than City Hall. At its most crowded moment, the audience counted 12 people. Most if those present voiced opposition to extending the ordinance, but just as many had submitted comments via email to the council that pleaded with the panel to extend the ordinance to further protect Nome from potential harm.
Most of the arguments, pro and con extension of the ordinance, centered around requirements expected of travelers to or through Nome, namely to fill out a form, and quarantine either for 14 days or to get tested upon arrival and seven days later, while observing seven days of quarantine. Those who emailed argued that the system worked and spared Nome and the region of an outbreak. Those who disagreed said the ordinance is government overreach and the travel form is an onerous governmental data collection that impedes the freedom of people coming and going as they please. A man who identified himself only as Josiah addressed the Council saying that the ordinance is fear-based and is curbing American freedom and that the threat of the coronavirus is blown out of proportion. He compared the emergency order to Japanese internment camps during World War II when about 120,000 Japanese Americans were relocated into concentration camps on U.S. soil. The comparison resulted in firm rebukes from Councilman Jerald Brown and Councilwoman Meghan Sigvanna Topkok.
Others like John Schneider argued that state mandates in place would be sufficient to regulate travel inter as well as intrastate. He suggested to improve the system so that local test results would be communicated to the state and to do away with the data collecting, as the state does not use the city’s data for tracing purposes. Schneider also is of the opinion that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu in terms of deaths and infections and that “all these numbers are below the annual flu which nobody jumps up and down about.”
Judy Martinson informed the Council that she finds the tracking of people highly offensive. Interim Mayor John Handeland explained that the purpose of the travel form – it’s a form, not a permit – was to inform the traveler of what is expected of them, namely quarantine for 14 days, or test twice and quarantine for seven days, and to keep track on who was traveling from where (potential hot spots.) Although some in the audience spoke about travel restrictions, there are none in place.
Jessica Farley asked the Council to either drop the ordinance and with it the travel requirements or extend it for a longer period of time so that she could make decisions regarding her business. The ordinance was extended in 60-day increments and this, she said, is making it hard for businesses to make long-term decisions.
Emails read into the record included mostly appeals to keep up the quarantine and testing requirements. Councilman Mark Johnson remarked that the council needs to be cognizant that Nome is a hub and the decisions the Nome Council makes reverberate into the region. If Nome flings open the gates, the virus will get into Nome and the region. If Nome is cautious, the surrounding villages will be shielded from the virus. Lucy Oquilluk of Teller said in an email the Nome did a good job protecting the region and she hoped they would keep it up. Another woman said that Nome by its location off the road system is a unique position to shield the region from the virus and she appealed to the council to keep up the travel quarantine and testing requirements.
The Native Village of Solomon expressed the wish that the council continues and extends the emergency order as a means to prevent and spread the virus and recommended a local mandate to wear masks indoors.
Norton Sound Health Corporation submitted an email recommending the continuation of the 14-day quarantine or the option to test on arrival, quarantine for seven days and then get tested again. “As Alaska and other states open up for business and remove restrictions, we are seeing more and more cases of the virus in the country, our state and our region,” the email said. “We are now also seeing increasing rates of hospitalizations and deaths in our state, and we must do everything we can to minimize the impact in our region,” NSHC’s VP of Hospital Services Kelly Bogart wrote.
Sherri Anderson stepped before the council and reminded them that a hundred years ago, her ancestors did the right thing and shut down Shishmaref. If they hadn’t done so and protected their village from the Spanish Flu, she wouldn’t stand here today, she said. Anderson also reminded the Council, “We are in this together, not only as Nome, but as the Norton Sound region,” she said.
John Handeland, who presided over the meeting, recognized the vast difference of opinion and invited the public to continue to weigh in. “If you have additional comments please email those to the City Council by Wednesday if you can,” he said.
The Council will meet on Monday, July 13 in a regular meeting and will have to make a decision on tossing or keeping the emergency ordinance.