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Candidates should lead by example, especially during a pandemic

  • Author: Liz Snyder
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 30, 2020
  • Published July 30, 2020

A yellow haze is cast onto the Anchorage skyline on Sunday evening, June 14, 2015.

There is nothing I’d rather be doing right now as a candidate than knocking on my neighbors’ doors and talking with them about their dreams for Alaska. But amidst a pandemic, with rising cases, it’s just not the responsible thing to do, and I won’t put my campaign ahead of anyone’s health.

My work as a public health professional informs my position as a candidate: political candidates should suspend their traditional approach to door-knocking until we have our community transmission rates under control.

After all, the health of our communities is paramount. Crushing the curve is what will save local businesses, open schools, save lives and get us all back to doing the things we love. I want to see Alaska thrive — this is what motivates me as a public health professional, and it’s what motivates me as a political candidate.

I’ve spent the past 10 years as a professor of public health at the University of Alaska Anchorage, working alongside community partners, students and colleagues to improve the health of Alaskans — helping ensure drinking water is safe in rural communities, reducing the risks of food insecurity and mitigating health risks associated with redeveloping neglected urban sites. Now I’ve been tasked with applying my master’s degree in public health, doctorate in science, and years of experience characterizing, quantifying, mitigating and communicating human health risks to advising the Municipality of Anchorage as we navigate the pandemic.

In the fight against COVID-19, I’m working with a dedicated group of university colleagues to conduct research and develop evidence-based recommendations for the Municipality of Anchorage. We’ve applied our public health training to determine how the use of masks and other safety measures can flatten the curve; compared transmission rates across industrialized countries that have reopened schools; analyzed how industries reduce transmission rates in the workplace; and trained to become contact tracers. Our motivation and our priority is keeping our communities safe, healthy and productive.

This is the same priority our political candidates should demonstrate on the campaign trail. Just as our communities and public health leaders are working hard to reduce the spread of the virus, so too should those running for office — by scaling back in-person campaign activities, getting creative in finding new ways to engage constituents and behaving in a COVID-smart way.

As I write this, community transmission rates are rapidly increasing, and as a result, Anchorage public schools are not scheduled to reopen in the fall. Our testing capabilities and contact tracing workforce are stretched thin. Yet, Alaska is currently doing well compared to other states. Our positivity rate is low, our death rate is low, and we haven’t maxed out our hospitalization capacity — yet. We can’t mess this up.

One way to not mess it up? Take a break from activities that aren’t essential to our physical, mental and economic health — activities like door-knocking.

Why single out door-knocking from other campaign activities?

Unlike small outdoor community engagements with voters (and unlike going shopping), door-knocking takes the element of choice out of the equation. The candidate chooses the interaction without knowing the risk status of the resident behind the door, rather than the resident choosing to attend an outdoor, distanced event.

While the candidate might be wearing a mask during door-knocking, it’s extremely unlikely that residents will be wearing masks inside their own homes. This puts the candidate and the resident at increased risk.

If a candidate tests positive for the virus, the onus and high cost of mandated contact tracing is now placed on the state. A candidate will need to share with contact tracers the names of all the residents s/he had extended conversations with, and ethically should alert all of the constituents on his/her door knocking list about the potential exposure. This will likely be a much longer list than a small outdoor event to which constituents are invited.

While adjusting campaign activities amidst a pandemic is challenging, it actually presents three opportunities that will benefit Alaska voters: First, it shows voters which candidates are ready to put the health and welfare of their constituents over political aspirations and pressures (a basic expectation for our leaders). Second, it shows voters which candidates can adapt, think on their feet and think outside the box (critical leadership skills). Third, it provides an opportunity for bipartisan collaboration in setting guidelines for candidates about things like door-knocking and other campaign activities. A show of both parties’ support for responsible campaigning would go a long way to restore public confidence in leadership, and I’m glad to say I’ve heard the Alaska Democratic Party recommend the same precautions I am recommending now. Both parties are advocating for absentee voting to reduce the risk of transmission at polling stations, so why not also include campaign best practices amidst a pandemic?

I understand that this position will be unwelcome to some candidates and leadership across the political spectrum. But, it doesn’t have to hobble a campaign. Virtual events, adapted in-person engagements with proper precautions, and traditional phone, text, print and digital media provide the tools any good candidate needs.

I’ve heard some people active in politics say that door-knocking is how a candidate will win, and that the risk of losing a campaign is more problematic than the risk a door-knocking candidate poses to a community. Does that sound right to you? It doesn’t to me.

Until we are no longer considered “high risk” by state health leadership, and we’ve experienced a seven-day decline in daily new cases, I won’t be knocking on your door. But I will be in the neighborhoods I hope to represent — wearing my mask and giving you space, holding small outdoor events alongside our campaign bus, leaving information on your porch, sending you a heads-up when I’m walking down your street, and hosting online meet-ups.

I trust you to choose the risk level you’re comfortable with, and you can trust me to always prioritize the health of our communities.

Liz Snyder, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Public Health in the UAA Division of Population Health Sciences. She holds a master’s degree in public health and a doctorate in soil and water science. She is a candidate for State House District 27 in East Anchorage.

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