COVID-19: City Council hears citizen concerns
The Nome Common Council met on Monday, March 30 in nearly empty Council Chambers, as citizens and councilmembers were encouraged to call in and not appear in person for the meeting, to keep with the state and local mandate for social distancing and avoiding gatherings over ten people.
Present were council members Jerald Brown, Mark Johnson, Mayor Richard Beneville, Deputy City Clerk Christine Piscoya and City Manager Glenn Steckman. The remaining council members appeared telephonically.
With no action items listed on the light agenda, most of the discussion revolved around the measures taken to protect the city and the region against the ever-worsening COVID-19 pandemic.
Citizen comments were taken by telephone and emails.
As of press time, there is no known COVID-19 case in Nome or the region.
City Manager Steckman reported that Alaska Airlines has reduced their passenger flights to one flight per day, Monday through Friday. Cargo planes continue on their regular schedule, so far. “One thing that I made clear to all airlines is that we must keep the supply chains open and that will keep the angst at bay,” Steckman said. The city began requiring passengers to fill out an essential air travel form when leaving Nome. Steckman said so far he sees good compliance with travel restrictions as on Monday only 16 passengers were coming into Nome with Alaska Air. On Tuesday, he expected 10 passengers and only four on Wednesday. The city is contemplating to send a NPD officer to the terminal and to and out the forms to make sure the people are informed of the 14-day mandatory self-quarantine. “That way we know who is coming and we may be able to check on their self-quarantine.” He also said that he had conversations with workers at GCI, FAA and the jail who work here, but live elsewhere to limit their travel out of Nome and to stay here until the travel ban is lifted.
Citizens comments came pouring in by telephone. Sue Steinacher called and said that there is no way that people who travel back home to their villages have enough room in overcrowded housing to self isolate. Greg Smith wanted to know if the City has a projection on the money shortfall that will affect city coffers and if there is a tax payer relief plan in place. Melanie Bahnke called and suggested to move NEST and the Day Shelter to the Mini Convention Center as inebriated guests of NEST now loiter at the Rec Center and the surrounding residential area, where a lot of kids are playing. She asked if the relocation is not possible that NPD increase their patrols in the area.
Dr. Mark Peterson, medical director with Norton Sound, reported that as of Monday morning, there were 114 cases of COVID in Alaska, none in Nome, that there are 500 test kits and 11 ventilators available.
At Alaska Native Medical Center there are 38 ventilators. In the region, 17 people were tested, 12 tests came back negative, the other five tests have results pending. Testing is only done for people showing symptoms and being in a certain risk group. Elective testing is not available.
He said he is hopeful that NSHC will receive rapid testing kits here in Nome by end of April. Dr. Peterson cautioned that there is no way that things get back to “normal” by mid-April and suggested that “I would take things in 30 to 60 day chunks.”
Nome Joint Utilities Manager John Handeland reported that NJUS operations are “as normal as they can be under the circumstances.” He asked that before a total travel ban is enacted to wait until two NJUS employees, who are just finishing up their certification for wastewater treatment, return home. He also broke the good news that Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation has decided to do a second round of their annual energy assistance program and to pass another credit of $575 to households to help out in these times of economic hardship. The first credit of $575 is going to be applied to NJUS bills this month. Information on the particulars of the second round of energy assistance will be forthcoming.
Discussion turned to Nome’s and Norton Sound hospital’s capability to handle cases if COVID-19 should make it to Nome. According to minutes from the March 30 leadership meeting, NSHC can take care of eight to 15 patients with some on ventilators. Steckman in the city council meeting said that if the virus comes to the community, the city may have to look into placing people into isolation in hotels or other private rental accommodations but that the hoteliers or proprietors of course would be paid for the use of their facilities. Steckman also reported that the Emergency Operations Center is fully functioning, albeit the switches and connections are outdated and need replacement. The EOC has a meeting at the end of every day at 4 p.m. to recap the day’s events. This is not a public meeting, but he encouraged council members to attend in person or telephonically. He said city employees are practicing social distancing, are encouraged to work from home if their work allows them to do so. Melanie Bahnke, CEO of Kawerak, urged the city to completely shut down as Kawerak is doing with their 250 employees. Steckman said the city is not quite equipped to offer every administrative employee a laptop that mirrors the setup at their city workstation. “We can offer administrative leave if people are concerned. We are a much smaller group,” he said. Bahnke offered assistance with technical expertise and even laptops. In a second round of citizen’s comments John Thomas called in and addressed the fact that there is no laundry-mat facility in Nome and that it may be time for the city to address fair water rates so that there could be competitive laundrymats to offer their services to the transient community of miners and another seasonal workers flocking to Nome in the summer.
Finally, the two-hour meeting came to an end with Mayor Richard Beneville appealing to all to remember their family members. He said, there are a number of people like him, who are aging and alone, who don’t have family here. “If you have an elder family member you haven’t heard from in a while, give them a call,” he said. “We’re small enough here to be able to show some humanity.”