Petersburg’s James A. Johnson Airport (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

Petersburg’s borough assembly Tuesday voted to reinstate local COVID-19 health mandates following the expiration of the state’s disaster declaration this month. The assembly also approved a new local travel testing mandate to take the place of a state mandate that’s now an advisory. Many local residents spoke against any health requirements from the municipal government.

Several of Petersburg’s COVID-19 health mandates expired with the end of the state’s disaster declaration this month. The assembly held a special meeting to vote on reinstating those, removing references to now expired state mandates on travel, testing and quarantine.

But local residents spoke against any continued requirements saying the borough should follow the state’s lead and change to advisories only. Chris Medalen said she wouldn’t be getting the vaccine and wanted the borough to focus on treatment for the disease as much as vaccination.

“I want to have the freedom to think and make choices for myself,” Medalen said. “I have no problem with the assembly making recommendations, like our governor and the state of Alaska have done, but I want the choice to determine if those recommendations are in my best interest and act accordingly.”

Another local resident Mika Hasbrouck was opposed to indefinite extension of the mandates and said testing and quarantine around travel did not work for her.

“If I have to continue testing at this rate, how will the borough pay my bills when I’m not allowed to go to work because this test with little credibility told me I was sick?” she asked. “The intrastate travel mandate in this community is not only feeding into the pandemic fatigue that we are all feeling but this assembly and the medical center and the EOC are creating a huge divide in this town with a lack of transparency they’re all operating under.”

Some of those testifying allege a cover up of negative side effects from the COVID vaccines and continued to challenge the usefulness of testing for COVID. Others writing in asked to end a face covering requirement that’s been in place since November but not enforced.

But others calling in supported health measures. Dawn Ingle said her father died from the disease in October.

“For all the people calling in about not masking, you know that’s your choice I get it,” Ingle said. “But for all the people that want to mask, we’re just trying to keep all the people safe in this town. Nobody has to be against each other in this cause of trying to keep people safe because it’s a very hard thing to watch and see somebody suffer and when you can’t go say goodbye to your loved ones, you all might think differently about it.”

Petersburg’s mask mandate, is still in effect and wasn’t up for a vote at this meeting; the assembly didn’t have the interest in voting to remove it earlier in the month. But the assembly did consider reinstating a local requirement for pre-approval for cruise ships docking, COVID testing for incoming travelers and submission of mitigation plans for companies bringing in out of state workers.

The EOC’s goal with these mandates before you today is to continue with the same level of protection that was provided to Petersburg before the expiration of the state’s mandate, or excuse me declaration,” said Karl Hagerman, incident commander with Petersburg’s emergency operations center.

For the cruise ship mandate, Hagerman explained that it was not intended to stop visits by smaller ships that may call here this year.

“We want visitors to Petersburg, we want people to come and enjoy our community but we would rather that they not bring the virus with them and impact other people in our town to do that,” he said. “So this mandate helps to protect us in that manner and puts some authority in the health officer’s hands to make sure that people that do get off the ships are healthy and that Petersburg is not adversely affected.”

That mandate as drafted would have been effect through the end of May, unless extended. But the assembly voted to remove that effective date and keep it in place until the assembly agrees to rescind the order. At the same time they agreed to consider it again in May.

Assembly member Dave Kensinger noted the elected body could review any of the mandates for removal any time. He said he planned to bring this one back up for consideration in April.

“I’d like to point out that right now the Chamber is working to try and develop language that’s consistent with the other communities within Southeast,” Kensinger said. “And I would propose that that should be ready no later than the April 1st meeting in time before we have any cruise ship visitors coming to town.”

The Petersburg Chamber of Commerce has asked the assembly to hold off on decisions that could impact the 2021 cruise season and hopes to provide input in March.

Another mandate reinstated asks companies that submit out-of-state workforce mitigation plans to the state also submit those to the Petersburg borough. That’s no longer a requirement from the state, just a request.

The assembly reinstated a local COVID testing requirement for travelers coming to Petersburg from elsewhere in Alaska. And the assembly also voted to create a new local mandate requiring testing for incoming travelers from out-of-state. That takes the place of the state’s mandate, which is now an advisory.

Assembly member Jeigh Stanton Gregor said traveler testing has worked to isolate new cases in the community.

“The goal of that, to be Captain Obvious here, is people coming to our community taking a test and following protocols while they’re awaiting it,” Stanton Gregor said. “Many of the positive tests we’ve had in our community over the course of this pandemic have been detected through that. I think it’s fair to extrapolate, as those people have been at home awaiting their results, it’s helped keep people safe.”

Those revised mandates will mean the local government requires COVID testing for all incoming travelers while the state now only requests it of people coming in from out of state.

Petersburg has relied on voluntary compliance for its health measures. And assembly member Bob Lynn highlighted this in his questioning.

“If somebody just does not want to participate at all in the mandate at the airport, there is not a provision in this for detaining someone or forcing them to participate,” responded Hagerman, incident commander. “We will try to keep the best log that we can of people that do not want to participate and that’s the best we can do.”

The assembly also continued a local directive that provides hotel rooms for temporary quarantine or isolation space for people who do not have a home.

The assembly was unanimous in most of its votes Tuesday with all but assembly member Taylor Norheim at the meeting. At the end of it though assembly member Jeff Meucci asked for more respect in the letters and emails from the public.

“I’m not saying they’re threatening but they have a different tone to it,” Meucci said. “And I would encourage the public to go on to the borough website and just read these letters and understand some of the thoughts and the positions that we’re getting from people. There’s somebody, I’m not going to say this person’s name but the quote is that ‘You’re a poison and therefore need to be removed.’ I mean you can think that stuff and I guess you can write that stuff if you want, that’s your freedom of speech but you know, honestly I think we’re all just trying to do the best we can and a little bit of respect goes a long way.

If the state reinstates its disaster declaration the wording of these local mandates may need to be changed again but health officials say that’s not a problem for the assembly to consider and reconsider these as much as needed.