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Palmer council delays decision on emergency mask mandate amid flood of public comments

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: November 19, 2020
  • Published November 19, 2020

PALMER — The Palmer City Council continued until next week a special hearing on an emergency mask mandate after four hours of public comments.

And that was just the roughly 60 people who wanted to testify personally, waiting outside for a chance to file into city council chambers 10 at a time. Many chose not to wear masks and spoke in opposition to any mandate.

The city clerk also received more than 500 public comment emails. Most of those are also in opposition.

The sheer load of testimony, and the time it will take for the clerk the emails into the public record, prompted the council’s decision to continue the meeting until Wednesday evening.

If approved, the emergency ordinance would require masks or face coverings in all indoor public settings or communal spaces outside the home, at outdoor gatherings, and outside when it’s impossible to maintain 6 feet of distance from nonhousehold members.

It would become effective immediately and last no more than 60 days.

To pass, the proposed Palmer mandate needs approval from three quarters of the seven-member council, instead of the usual majority.

That’s a 6-1 vote.

A summary statement from council members Dr. Jill Valerious and Sabrena Combs says the proposal comes in reaction to a “public health emergency that threatens to overwhelm our health system.” Last week, Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued an emergency alert asking citizens to remain diligent in social distancing and masking.

The proposal also comes as COVID-19 cases last month rose to unprecedented levels in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough after staying fairly low since the pandemic began in March.

If approved, Palmer would become the first community in Mat-Su to broadly require masks. Wasilla requires masks in some facilities, such as the library, but has not enacted a citywide mandate. Borough officials have not required face coverings except for inside borough buildings.

Dunleavy, who is from Mat-Su, has resisted calls to enact a statewide mandate. He has repeatedly said he prefers to leave that decision up to individual local governments.

As a second-class borough, “it’s pretty clear” the Mat-Su lacks the authority to enact health mandates including ordering quarantines or mask orders, Borough Mayor Vern Halter said at a Thursday briefing.

“The Mat-Su Borough does not have that authority even if there’s a disaster declaration,” Halter said.

Mat-Su is one of seven second-class boroughs around the state that on Wednesday sent a letter from their attorneys to Acting Attorney General Ed Sniffen asking for clarification.

The Department of Law has yet to provide legal analysis backing the contention that local governments have the power to require masks, the borough attorneys say. In the letter, the boroughs — Fairbanks North Star, Kenai Peninsula, Mat-Su, Ketchikan Gateway, Bristol Bay, Aleutians East and Kodiak Island — say statute indicates they don’t.

“Second class boroughs do not have ‘police powers’ or general health and social services powers and cannot implement measures for the protection of the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens as your office suggests,” the letter states.

Palmer does have that authority.

As proposed, the Palmer ordinance would permit face shields for people who can’t tolerate a mask due to physical or mental disability; people communicating with someone deaf or hard of hearing; and people performing activities that aren’t safe while wearing a mask, such as drivers experiencing foggy glasses.

The order wouldn’t apply to children under 5, though masks would be recommended for children 2 to 5. It also wouldn’t apply to people in jail or court; presenters or musicians before an audience under certain conditions; people eating, drinking or scratching an itch; workers in their own office space; or people doing “high intensity exercise” indoors or outdoors.

It would generally require businesses to deny admittance to anyone not complying though with a provision for people requesting accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.