Novel coronavirus

This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (yellow)—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells (blue/pink) cultured in the lab.

Credit: NIAID-RML

Alaska’s acting attorney general said during an online question and answer session with reporters that municipalities have the power to mandate face masks under their disaster powers, even second class boroughs, such as the Fairbanks North Star Borough. 

The comments by Clyde “Ed” Sniffen Jr. on Monday are in contrast to comments by Borough Mayor Bryce Ward and other local leaders who have said the borough cannot mandate face coverings because of limited health powers as approved by the voters. 

“You don’t really need health powers to issue a mask mandate,” Sniffen said. “Those aren’t heath powers. Those are disaster powers.”

Every municipality has the power to create and implement a disaster plan, he said. 

“That’s just asking people to do the right thing and help prevent the spread of this disease,” Sniffen said. “We would support municipalities exercising those kinds of powers.”

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services hosted the Q&A with a panel of state officials involved in the coronavirus response. The panelists shared details of a new state disaster declaration that took effect Monday.

Heidi Hedberg, director of public health, said Alaskans should be aware of Health Order 8, Section B, which adds some testing requirements for in-state travel. (Health orders are like mandates, according to Sniffen, who said they have the force of law.) 

Under Order 8, Section B, travelers from a community on the road system to a community off the road system must first test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours. This starts Saturday.

Most of the disaster declaration provisions involve relaxing state regulations to help with the COVID-19 response, officials said. 

The goal is to try to maintain stability in the health care system, according to Adam Crum, commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services. 

Crum is hopeful the governor’s emergency message about the rapidly spreading virus last week resonated with Alaskans. 

Large events, particularly in rural Alaska, have been canceled or postponed since the governor used emergency smartphone communications to ask people in a video message to step up virus mitigation habits, Crum said. 

“It is having the intended effect,” the commissioner said, adding later: “We have already seen some movement in people changing their behaviors.”

Officials will know for certain if the emergency message worked in about two weeks if case counts decrease, Crum said. 

At least three churches in Fairbanks on Sunday morning had full or near full parking lots. 

Photos of the parking lots and questions about whether Dunleavy meant for church congregations to heed his emergency message were sent to the governor’s communications office. There was no response. 

Crum said the state is in touch with faith leaders and that he would need more information than photos of parking lots to comment. He would want to know what was happening inside the buildings—were worshippers wearing masks?

The commissioner said he has not worshipped in-person in months and has been attending church services online. 

“It’s a personal thing for a lot of Alaskans,” he said. 

Attempts to reach borough leaders about the acting attorney general’s comments about mask mandates were unsuccessful on Monday. 

Section 2.16.090 of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Code of Ordinances states that “the mayor shall consider, on a continuing basis, steps that could be taken to prevent or reduce the harmful consequences of disasters. The mayor shall make recommendations to the assembly that facilitate measures for the prevention or reduction of the harmful consequences of disasters.”

The leader of the Borough Assembly, Mindy O’Neall, also could not be reached by text message. 

Local leaders at the borough and the cities of Fairbanks and North Pole have said they lack sufficient staffing to enforce a mask mandate.

The state of Alaska added 563 new COVID-19 cases on Monday with 18 of those recorded in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. 

The number of virus fatalities in Alaska was listed as 98, up from 96 on Wednesday.

The number of suspected or confirmed virus patients in the hospital in Alaska is 143, according to the state online data hub. 

Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMborough.