(Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

Petersburg’s borough assembly approved public health mandates on face coverings and testing Monday night in measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

The face covering order went into effect at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, November 17 and applies throughout the borough. It requires mask wearing inside any building open to the public or in a work setting with others. It also allows a number of exemptions from the requirement.

Many members of the public spoke strongly against the mandate.

“The council tried a mask mandate in Petersburg already,” said local resident Tausha Sperl. “The negative impact that had on the community was too great. That will still be true tomorrow. I will not be told how to parent from someone who doesn’t know my children or love them as immensely as I do. The borough and the assembly should not have that power. I will not allow the city to step between me and my children. I will continue to go with my gut feeling.”

Face coverings have been recommended by local medical center staff and the borough’s emergency operations center.

“You know I keep hearing from people who want to keep businesses open,” said assembly member Jeff Meucci, who brought the mandate up for a vote at Monday’s meeting. “They want to continue to see this town kind of get back to where we were before this and the only way that’s going to happen is for us to just do a simple selfless act for the whole community and wear a mask when you’re in a public building and you can’t social distance.”

The assembly agreed to remove language requiring face coverings in outdoor settings when social distancing isn’t possible. But they added back language to require masks for large outdoor public gatherings. They also agreed to exempt children up to three years old, instead of two years. And they added language to make an allowance for a wider array of medical conditions exempt from mask wearing.

But other assembly members were opposed to the mandate even with those changes.

“I don’t want to mandate something that I think is going to stir up the public and I think that is what this is going to do,” said mayor Mark Jensen.

He was a no vote, along with assembly members Taylor Norheim and Bob Lynn but it passed with those changes on a 4-3 vote. The borough can fine people for violating the order however Petersburg’s police chief explained officers would aim to educate violators instead of fining them. Petersburg had a mask mandate in the spring that relied on voluntary compliance.

The assembly also passed an order requiring COVID-19 testing or a negative test result for people arriving in Petersburg from other parts of Alaska. That applies to both plane and ferry passengers and takes effect immediately.