Commentary: Six communities take measures to fight pandemic

By Pat Branson, Clay Koplin, Steve Prysunka, Vincent Tutlakoff and Beth Weldon

For The Cordova Times

As mayors of islanded communities, we have responded through this pandemic in ways that may be different than others but were directly responsive to the needs of our residents and businesses.

We’ve made choices that focused on active mitigation measures to ensure our communities were in a position to ensure our communities were in a position to manage our health care capacity while seeing businesses bounce back.

What residents have experienced are regular updates on case counts and trends via a dashboard that we hope communicates that easily, alongside how those numbers match up to our decision-making. Our decisions have run the gamut from reduced gatherings inside, distancing measures and mask requirements when distancing isn’t possible. We know that masks have been an effective tool for reducing the rates of transmission in our communities when cases increased.

We’ve put a lot of effort into encouraging residents to help us get a new normal by becoming vaccinated. Our communities lead the state in vaccination rates – residents know how important a step that is to getting our economies back on their feet and our social activities back up and running. Mostly, it’s been gratifying to see how well residents understand the link between vaccination, making and a return to normalcy.

We’re fortunate in that while we’ve certainly had debate about these measures there’s also broad recognition of just how important it is.  Maybe that’s due to being islanded, or remote, and a sense that we’re on our own to overcome the challenge in front of us. There’s j one else but us to be accountable for our community’s well-being.

That sense of being on our own to do this is critical, because maybe there’s a lesson there or implications. While we may be isolated, we’re not independent from the rest of the state or nation.  It means that the decisions of other communities and states travelers in and out, and the general flow of commerce al affect our communities.

As mayors, we understand that our response is tailored to the responsiveness of our community. We know that other mayors are similarly situated, trying to navigate public welfare with the powers they do or don’t have and current conditions within the community. We recognize that a discussion about the role of a local government ensuring public health is fraught with debate and conflict. We’re also employers, and we know how we face that same debate in managing a workforce that has been through a lot.

There’s a lot to trying to make the right choices, when there aren’t any easy ones.  It would be easy to look at others or to the state, for leadership and action, but at this point in the pandemic we’re all seemingly doing the best we can with what we’ve got.

The best we can offer to the rest of Alaska is that the research elsewhere, and our own experience, leads us to believe that so much of how we manage through COVID is about how we adapt our behavior as individuals and as a community.  It’s not a return to normal that we’re looking for; it’s accepting that the new normal comes with additional risk, and that we can make choices to manage that risk.

Wes we have mask requirements and distancing guidelines in place, but at this point our residents expect it of themselves and us. There isn’t enforcement or judgment that goes alongside these measures – there is calm and stability that allows our businesses to support tourists and residents for community activities to occur and for us to celebrate all the things that come with being unique Alaska communities.

But it’s not necessarily the measures we’re taken that are critical, it’s the communication from the top that says we recognize the challenges we face here are the tools at our disposal, join us in maintaining our health care systems, economy and ways of life. It’s not top-down direction, but bottom-up support that has seen our communities weathering this storm.  More than anything else, we appreciate our communities, residents, visitors and businesses who understand the need and focus together on the things that we can do to get through this.

Mayors Pat Branson serves the city of Kodiak, Clay Koplin the city of Cordova, Stephen Prsuhka the city and borough of Wrangell, Vincent Tutiskoff the city of Unalaska, and Beth Weldon the city and borough of Juneau.