Businesses on Wrangell’s Front Street.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

Masks are now required in Wrangell’s indoor, public spaces. City officials say the measure is the best way to keep the city open for business, as Southeast Alaska’s COVID risk level remains high with school kids on distance learning until at least March 8.  

Listen to the story here.

Anyone in an indoor, public space in Wrangell now has to wear a face covering. Violators can be fined $25. 

Wrangell Mayor Steve Prysunka says he’s spoken to borough leaders in Petersburg, who are grappling with a widespread outbreak just 50 miles away

“They went from a few cases to 60 plus cases in no time,” Prysunka said. “They went from everything wide open to everything absolutely shut down. Schools are shut down. City facilities are shut down. Everything is shut down. And I read on Facebook, somebody said: ‘Yeah, look there, they had a bunch of this stuff in place. And the [mitigation measures] didn’t work, didn’t do any good.’ Because people weren’t following them. That’s why it didn’t do any good.”

City manager Lisa Von Bargen on Tuesday defended the new rule amidst a handful of residents who were hostile to the measure. 

“This isn’t about scare tactics,” she said. “This is about keeping the virus at bay so that we can continue to operate normally. We’re not suggesting any closures, we’re not suggesting that business be done any differently.”

But there was push back from four community members who showed up to speak. 

D.J. McConachie was one of them. 

“Much like many others, I have a hard time being told what to do, especially when the rationale does not make sense,” he said.

His father is leading an effort to try and recall Wrangell’s mayor over perceived legal issues with an emergency meeting where the assembly passed a mask mandate last year.

McConachie Jr. also suggested that assembly and city staff are spending too much effort on the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Let’s focus on issues within our borough,” he said. “Not masks, fines and the occasional snow berm. But issues like infrastructure, roads, ports and harbors and tourism.”

City manager Lisa Von Bargen agreed that there are plenty of pressing needs.

“There are hundreds of things all of us [on the Emergency Operations Center] could be doing all day long that are so important for this community,” she said. “But instead we’re having to spend our time dealing with COVID-19 because it’s the right thing to do to help keep the community safe.”

Wrangell resident Morgan Sanford was against the mandate as well. He framed the public health debate as a power grab.

“This is not about health,” Sanford said. “This is about control, which you obviously don’t want to give up. You continue to pretend you have our best interests in mind, while you attempt to strip us down of every liberty and freedom.”

Valerie Massie spoke in favor of the mandate, saying she believes this is the time to implement greater restrictions. 

“I honestly think it’s pretty selfish to think that anyone is that concerned about controlling, when we’re really just trying to take care of each other,” she added.

The city manager pushed back against accusations that the mask mandate is intentionally divisive or a power play by Wrangell officials.

“I want to make sure that the community realizes there is no one in this town more sick of COVID-19 than me,” she said, “there is nobody more sick of COVID-19 than the people that sit on the EOC.”

She said she understands people’s frustration and fatigue with living through a pandemic.

“If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of it, you can darn sure bet your– your– well, your whatever that I would,” Von Bargen added.

Assembly member Patty Gilbert, who voted for the mandate, said she understood that many in the community are opposed to requiring masks. But she says it’s in everyone’s best interest. 

“I do realize that I’m going to lose some friends. But in my heart of hearts, I want to do the right thing for the community,” Gilbert said.

Zach Taylor was the other community member who spoke in favor of a mask mandate. He says it’s necessary to repair the island’s visitor economy. 

“I personally did zero sales in my tour business last year,” Taylor said. “I’m down tens of thousands of dollars of lost income from last year. With a lack of cruise ships expected this year, I will probably be closing my doors permanently if we don’t get independent travelers.”

Assembly member Terry Courson was the lone assembly vote against the measure. 

“I think the mandate isn’t appropriate — for government to come in and mandate that someone wear a mask,” Courson said. “[I’ve noticed] the outrage from all the emails that have been forwarded, and counting those up along with the, like four dissenters… It looks like the majority of the population [are opposed] — assuming that everybody that would want to voice their opinion tonight did. I just cannot see the justification in this.”

Courson also voted against a separate ordinance requiring visitors arriving from out-of-state to get tested and quarantine pending results. 

There’s no penalty for not following the newly-implemented travel rule. But the ordinance requires a recent negative test result upon arrival. Those without negative results are required to quarantine pending a test at the airport and to complete a follow-up test at least five days after arrival. Alaska residents will have the option of quarantining for 14 days if they won’t want to be tested.  

Assembly member David Powell, who voted against the mask mandate in November of last year, was not present at Tuesday’s meeting.

Wrangell’s reinstated mask mandate, testing and quarantine requirements sunset on April 13.

You can read the new ordinances here.

Get in touch with KSTK at or (907) 874-2345.