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Seward requires face coverings, bans large gatherings and limits camping amid COVID-19 outbreak

Lined with historic buildings on each side, pedestrians cross Fourth Avenue in downtown Seward on Monday, August 4, 2014. (ADN archive)

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The City of Seward, which normally swells with visitors for the Fourth of July, has approved a face covering rule and other temporary restrictions to stem a coronavirus outbreak.

The city council on Wednesday night unanimously approved emergency regulations that require face coverings in indoor public spaces, ban large gatherings and limit capacity in businesses and churches. The city is also limiting recreational camping capacity at popular Resurrection Bay campgrounds to half.

Seward is experiencing a sudden jump in new daily COVID-19 case counts — at least some of them associated with downtown bars — as confirmed positive cases also rise around the state.

Since the start of the pandemic, 29 Seward residents and six nonresidents have tested positive for COVID-19, according to state data. Local officials also reported another four positive test results Thursday that will be counted in state data on Friday.

Until the current outbreak, Seward had few virus cases: Three residents tested positive between March and early June.

Local authorities this week canceled all holiday events. More than a dozen downtown businesses voluntarily closed their doors with plans to keep them shut through the holiday weekend.

The city council on Wednesday evening approved an emergency regulation on face coverings, requiring that people cover their nose and mouth “in buildings open to the public when they cannot maintain six feet of space between themselves and individuals outside their household.”

The order exempts children 4 and younger, people with trouble breathing and those with medical conditions that prevent them from covering their faces.

People can take off their masks to eat and drink but need to wear them otherwise, such as when they’re entering or leaving an establishment, officials say. They don’t have to wear them while “receiving lawful services that cannot be adequately performed while the recipient is wearing a facial covering,” the regulation states.

The council enacted another emergency regulation limiting all city-owned campgrounds to half capacity for recreational camping — the city won’t take reservations beyond that level — but said the campgrounds are still open for use by Seward-area workers and employees.

The city’s waterfront campground is at about half capacity now, according to city clerk Brenda Ballou. Another one is almost full, and a third has 30 out of 36 spaces occupied, Ballou said. The city will allow those campers to stay but won’t take new reservations over 50% capacity after that. It wasn’t immediately clear how many city workers are camping.

Restaurants, bars, sightseeing and wildlife cruises, retail stores and churches must limit indoor seating to 10 people or no more than half capacity, whichever is greater.

Another regulation bans gatherings of 20 or more people, excluding gatherings legal under the seating capacity rule or for “the purpose of exercising Constitutional rights.”

The restrictions are in place for 30 days.

Several officials, including Mayor Christy Terry, defended the steps as way to avoid an all-encompassing shutdown.

At this stage in the pandemic, there are no easy answers in dealing with COVID-19, Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, told the council.

“The easy decisions have been made and the hard ones are here now,” Zink said, calling the virus “incredibly contagious” and humbling in the speed of its spread. “It’s important to remember that it does take a while to see those effects in the hospital and hospitalized patients.”

The council met in a special session Thursday. The mayor personally read 46 written comments into the record, taking a few by phone.

Some residents begged the council to protect the health of the community, or condemned them for not doing so sooner. Others criticized any attempt to mandate face coverings and restrict businesses. A few pointed out that, despite the sudden jump in local cases, they had heard no reports of severe illness linked to COVID-19 in the community.

Jennifer Appel told the council that masks breed germs, the rising count in Seward was only because so many people were getting tested, and that Americans should be free to choose their own risk levels and make their own choices.

“Who gave the government the power over churches, power over our personal lives?” Appel testified. “They want to make us afraid of everyone else in the name of safety.”

Tim Mullet told the council they didn’t enact policies restricting high-risk activities soon enough.

“You are a disappointment,” Mullet testified. “This is your fault. Your decisions have made this outbreak possible.”

Seward is a home rule city formed by a voter-supported charter that gives officials the ability to adopt powers without restriction, except for those restricted by the state, according to Nils Andreassen, executive director of the Alaska Municipal League. Other city governments are general law municipalities whose powers are limited to what the state allows.

Anchorage and Palmer are home-rule governments, Andreassen said. Most Alaska municipalities, including Homer and Wasilla, are not.

“That’s why there’s a lot of questions around this issue,” he said, referring to the local ability to require face coverings.

The first Seward cases associated with the outbreak surfaced last week. Officials recommended tests for anyone who had frequented two local establishments, the Seward Alehouse and Yukon Bar, around June 21 and 22.

Bars are “very high-risk situations,” state epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin told the council Wednesday. People drink and stop social distancing, and often sit close together. If it’s a small bar and people are singing, the risk of infection goes up.

A large tour operator on the waterfront shut down temporarily this week after two employees tested positive for COVID-19.

Kenai Fjords Tours, one of several companies offering wildlife and glacier cruises on the Resurrection Bay waterfront, temporarily halted operations due to confirmed cases in two employees. The company expects to reopen July 10.

Kenai Fjords Tours is recommending anyone who took a cruise in the past week contact local health care providers and monitor for COVID-19 symptoms.

Operations at Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge, with the same owner as the tour company, will also be paused until July 8.

Positive cases among employees has also prompted the cancellation of lodging and activities at waterfront outfitter Miller’s Landing until July 6 at the earliest, according to a Facebook post from the Miller family, who had all staff get tested last weekend.

The Millers plan to retest their staff and will begin a plan to resume operations once they feel it’s safe to do so, they wrote. The closure could “very well” last longer than Monday.

“This absolutely is the last thing we want to do,” the Miller’s Landing website says. “The community is closing down in general, the town has cancelled the 4th of July celebration, and operating seems like a brash and unnecessary risk to those who live and work in the area.”

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