PALMER — Elected officials in this Mat-Su city of about 7,300 rejected a mask mandate late Friday night after hearing 18 hours of testimony and receiving nearly 700 comments over three separate hearings.
The majority of public comments opposed the proposal.
Palmer’s city council voted 4-3 against enacting an emergency ordinance that would require masks. A 6-1 vote was required for approval.
If approved, Palmer’s emergency ordinance would have required masks or face coverings in all indoor public settings or communal spaces outside the home, at outdoor gatherings, and outside when it wasn’t possible to maintain 6 feet of distance from non-household members.
The mandate was originally proposed on Nov. 18 by deputy mayor Sabrena Combs and city council member Dr. Jill Valerius, a family practice physician, in reaction to a “public health emergency that threatens to overwhelm our health system.” Gov. Mike Dunleavy last month issued an emergency alert asking citizens to remain diligent in social distancing and masking.
Palmer, founded around a 1930s New Deal farm colony, is experiencing rising COVID-19 cases like other Mat-Su communities. Mat-Su had among the highest rates of new cases per capita in the state this week. As of Friday, about a quarter of the beds in the borough’s only hospital, Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, were occupied by patients with COVID-19.
The move to require masks, however, proved unpopular with the majority of people providing comments.
Officials in Palmer received 607 emails and heard from 62 people who testified in person at that first hearing. About 400 emails opposed the mandate and many of the people testifying in person did. Clerks say it’s not clear how many of the comments came from people who live in Palmer.
Critics — some called masks “germ sponges” — cited concerns that the mandate put the enforcement burden on local businesses and could push shoppers to Wasilla or other parts of the Mat-Su without mask mandates. They also called Palmer’s proposal a “big city mandate” that unfairly punished churches and limited personal freedoms.
Palmer is one of three cities in Mat-Su, where there is no boroughwide mask mandate. Borough officials say they lack the legal authority to require masks.
The first hearing was held over until last week, when city clerks and the manager took turns reading emails aloud into the record until midnight, the time city code required the hearing to end. Some members of the public also testified at a city council meeting earlier last week.
It took another six hours to finish reading about 200 emails Friday night.
An amendment to reduce the enforcement pressure on businesses didn’t sway the council, which took a vote just before 11 p.m.
During discussion beforehand, longtime council member and self-described libertarian Steve Carrington said Anchorage is not one of the top 10 places said he looks for advice, referring to the municipality’s longstanding mask requirement.
“I don’t think we want to be like Anchorage,” Carrington said. “I don’t think we want to be (moving) in that direction.”
Palmer Mayor Edna DeVries, who has made it clear she doesn’t back such restrictions, presided over the hearings without a mask.
Even co-sponsor Combs, a Matanuska Electric Association community relations director, ultimately voted no, a decision prompted by the 68% of public comments against the ordinance.
“I’m pretty torn on this vote because it’s forcing me to choose between what in my heart and my brain is right to do,” she said: masking versus the will of the public.
Combs said she “felt hate” this past week in the community as well as in council chambers. She said she hoped the 68% opposed think about the pro-mandate commenters “who do not feel safe in our town.”
Three members voted in favor: Valerius, 203 Kombucha co-owner Brian Daniels and Julie Berberich, who owns Backcountry Bike and Ski and a nearby motel with her husband.
Berberich said the ordinance came about after the governor’s alert last month “frankly, scared a lot of people,” and she expressed sadness and frustration that the issue became so charged, especially now that COVID-19 cases are much higher than they were when the ordinance first surfaced.
“This didn’t have to be such a politically divisive issue. I see it as a failure from the top down — president, governor, mayor,” she said. “I don’t want to do a mandate. I would like to think that people are good, that they would do the right thing but a lot of this testimony makes me think that is not the case.”