On August 25, YKHC convened a meeting with Senator Lyman Hoffman, City of Bethel Mayor Perry Barr, Acting City Manager Lori Strickler, and City Attorney Libby Bakalar. YKHC has long advocated that YK Delta residents and businesses practice several COVID-19 precautions including, universal masking in public, frequent hand washing, physical distancing and mandatory COVID-19 testing of all incoming travelers from out-of-region at the Bethel airport.
In July, YKHC President & CEO, Dan Winkelman, testified before the Bethel City Council advocating they mandate COVID-19 testing at the airport and YKHC has continued those discussions with the City and the State of Alaska. YKHC recently worked with Senator Hoffman to bring all parties together. During this meeting, Senator Hoffman informed the City of Bethel that the Alaska Department of Law, through the Governor’s office, would share its legal guidance confirming YKHC’s testimony and legal argument that second-class cities, like the City of Bethel, have emergency authority under both the Alaska Disaster Act and municipal statutes generally, titles 26 and 29, to mandate temporary and reasonable requirements to protect public health and safety—including mandating COVID-19 testing at the Bethel airport and wearing masks in public when physical distance cannot be maintained so long as these measures are not prohibited by law elsewhere. The guidance provided by the Governor’s office, received by Senator Hoffman, can be found at ykhc.org. The final legal guidance issued by the Department of Law, with additional considerations made by the Alaska Municipal League and Alaska Municipal Attorney Association, can also be found at ykhc.org.
COVID-19 is a highly infectious disease with no known cure. It is a virus that can be deadly, especially for vulnerable populations. For this reason, Federal, State, and Local authorities have declared the COVID-19 pandemic to be a public health disaster emergency. According to Alaska Statute 29.25.030, a city’s governing body may adopt an emergency ordinance (effective for up to 60 days) to meet a public emergency. Subject to the provisions of the Alaska Disaster Act, second-class cities, like Bethel, “may generally institute measures necessary to respond to a declared disaster provided such actions are not expressly prohibited by state law, impermissibly conflict with state law, are unconstitutional, or are otherwise preempted by state action.”
As a matter of public policy, the State has not preempted communities from enacting mandated protective measures. The Governor’s proclamation of emergency has activated the State of Alaska Operation Plan and the City of Bethel’s Emergency Operations Plan. Additionally, the Governor and Department of Health and Social Services have recognized the heightened risk of COVID-19 to residents of small, remote communities with limited medical infrastructure, like Bethel, by issuing Health Mandate 18—which delegates to small communities the flexibility to enact public health measures tailored to particular circumstances.
“While practicing all known COVID-19 safeguards is important, a comprehensive plan that also includes mandatory airport testing of incoming passengers from other communities with community spread is a known best-practice that other communities and countries have used successfully to prevent or limit widespread outbreaks. Such strategies and tactics, so long as implemented early and by a willing community, will further reduce our risk of community spread. Thus, allowing residents to continue exercising our civil liberties, keeping our businesses open and protecting our vulnerable populations,” said YKHC President & CEO Dan Winkelman.