City Council airs frustration with state COVID-19 response

Jun 23, 2020

Dr. Anne Zink
Credit State of Alaska

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink was the special guest of the Homer City Council at Monday night’s regular meeting, with Mayor Ken Castner moving a question and answer session with her to the top of the agenda.
    Frustration was clear in Castner and council member’s questions as they pointed out how Homer and the South Peninsula have become the hottest Covid-19 spot in the state, second only to Anchorage.
    “You know, we've had a lot of big visitor influx this weekend and very few people came with masks when they came from out of town. And people look at the numbers and feel very vulnerable,” Castner said. “And you have said, and the governor said, that you expected to have an increase in numbers, that you are expecting to see a growth, but it's feeling a little bit like a Petri dish here. At what point does it get to be like, alarming?”
    Zink responded that the mayor and the city council could write a letter to the governor asking him to recommend mask use in Homer.
    Castner said the city and the state came into the Covid-19 emergency in March with a three-part plan, and in his mind, none of the parts have worked.
    “We had a quarantine. We had the social distancing, droplet control sort of a thing. And we had testing. And have we hit the mark on any of those three?” Castner asked. “The quarantine, we saw almost immediately, and you and I traded emails on this that people will get here and say, 'I came here to fish. I didn't come here to sit in a hotel,' and go fishing.  I'm not sure that we've hit the mark on any of those three things. But that was the strategy were those three items and, so choose one can we, can we do any of them better? As you say, there's a huge resistance to any kind of change now.”
    Testing, Zink said, turns out not to be an exact science.
    “The question about testing is a fascinating one. Like what is testing? Is there adequate testing? And every White House call, I will tell you that is the conversation, ‘like, how much is enough testing?’ We are the eighth most tested state in the country for whatever that is worth. So we do a lot of testing in the state compared to other places. Some communities it's very accessible. They've tested the whole community, some communities it's incredibly limited. And we're always trying to overcome those barriers to get there easier. I got calls from another community on the Kenai why they couldn't be more tested like Homer the other day. So everyone is pointing to someone else and saying, you know, it's better over there,” Zink said. “I think it all speaks to the fact that testing is an important tool, but it's a limited tool and isn't perfect anywhere. It's trying to make a test universally available in a fractured healthcare system.”
    Councilmember Donna Aderhold pressed Zink on a lack of leadership coming from the state on safety messaging.
     “So one of the things that I have been concerned about is that it feels like messaging at the state level for the importance of all the measures that we started with are still really important, but just getting that messaging out, very positive messaging on why this is important and how we're protecting each other and what we can do, from the state administration all the way down would really help us,” Aderhold said. “And I'm not feeling that from the state anymore. It feels like they're not walking that talk very well.”
    Zink said the state is continually working at its messaging, and is always open to more suggestions.
    A bit later in the meeting, Mayor Castner took a moment to assure the citizens in the listening audience that not all the city’s business is about Covid-19 all the time.
    “Things are progressing. The departments are all working, doing their department work. You know, we're getting financial reports where we're writing new ordinances, new resolutions, we're doing all this stuff that the city normally does,” Castner said. “We're probably not at the same pace that we would be, but even in dealing with COVID where we're tackling some big issues that will hopefully help the town recover. I can't guarantee any speed. I can't guarantee any outcomes that are for certain.”
    The city council’s next virtual gatherings will come while holding a city manager hiring meeting on June 29 and a special meeting on July 1.