Wrangell is experiencing its largest COVID-19 outbreak to date, with a record number of people in the community falling ill. But most elected officials say they won’t support mandating mask-wearing in indoor, public spaces. 

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A Wrangell pandemic education poster, distributed in mid-2020.
(KSTK archive)

Wrangell first implemented a mask mandate last November, with one active case of COVID-19 in the community. That mandate was allowed to expire after three weeks

Flash forward to Tuesday evening: Wrangell’s Emergency Operations Center had reported more than two dozen active cases of COVID-19, by far the community’s largest outbreak of the pandemic. 

Borough manager Lisa Von Bargen requested that the assembly approve an ordinance that would require the public wear masks indoors to slow the spread of COVID.

“This is an interim measure,” Von Bargen told the assembly. “We want to not have to curtail activity in the community, that’s what we don’t want to do. And masking up helps us in that interim phase to try to reset things, to get numbers to come down. And so we’re really asking everybody to do that.”

Wrangell EOC’s head, Dorianne Sprehe, added that state public health workers are overwhelmed with the current spike and more local efforts are needed.

“We know contact tracing right now is very, very, very taxed,” Sprehe said. “Some folks, they were told it wasn’t going to be — for a couple days that they wouldn’t even get a phone call to figure things out.”

But a solid majority of Wrangell’s assembly voted down a measure that would levy a $25 fine. They discussed making it an advisory measure without enforcement. That failed too. 

Wrangell Mayor Steve Prysunka explained his opposition to a local mask rule: “We’re being asked to sort of stick our necks out here to protect our community,” the mayor said. “I want to be sure that there is a plan in place, [that] you’re going to do something. If we’re not going to do anything but the assembly says there’s a mask mandate, and the police don’t go out and do anything, and there’s no sandwich boards, and there’s no posters, and there’s no community outreach, to me, it’s just wasted time.”

Previous mandates, all of which he voted for, have sparked controversy in town. Prysunka added that he didn’t feel that the community had been given enough of a chance to don masks voluntarily. 

“It doesn’t appear that we’ve made a good faith effort to allow the community to comply on their own without a threat,” he added. “Because I’ve seen nothing for posters going  up and it doesn’t appear that we’ve had that outreach.”

Assembly member Dave Powell agreed with the mayor. He says he felt uncomfortable voting in a mask mandate when he didn’t feel there had been an obvious effort to educate the public.

“I think this [educational effort] should have been done before the cruise ship even came to town, everything. I think there should have been a campaign out there saying: ‘Please wear a mask, we’re getting a spike, blah, blah, blah.’ I feel very uncomfortable voting this in, in any aspect, because none of that was ever done,” Powell explained.

Wrangell’s EOC has not publicly reported a case of COVID-19 connected to any cruise ship visits to the island.

Other assembly members like Anne Morrison reported pushback in the community. She says there’s strong opposition to mask-wearing that has only increased throughout the spring and summer, adding: “I had someone tell me today that if they get approached for not wearing a mask, and someone tries to fine them $25, they will fight it.”

Assembly member Patty Gilbert ultimately voted against mandating or recommending mask-wearing in the community, but spoke in favor of some leadership by the assembly. 

“I think as a body, we should be proactive to some degree on this issue,” Gilbert said. “I know I’m as fatigued as all of you on this issue. But, you know, I’m thinking of, in part, supporting the school effort.” 

Wrangell’s public schools are set to start in-person classes next week, with masks required for everyone indoors

Ryan Howe was the sole assembly member to support making masks compulsory. He said he understood that a city mandate might not change people’s minds, but that it would benefit those who can’t take steps to protect themselves. 

“There are still vulnerable people like children who can’t be vaccinated, obviously,” Howe explained, adding “So I’m definitely concerned about the numbers where they are. But I also am aware that a lot of people have already made up their minds, and we’ll never change them.”

Wrangell requires COVID-19 tests for unvaccinated individuals arriving in the community, and those people are asked to strictly social distance until they receive results. Alaska residents have the option of quarantining for two weeks in lieu of testing.  

Wrangell’s EOC has published almost a hundred COVID-19 briefings and PSAs on KSTK since the beginning of the pandemic, including special updates with Mayor Prysunka and Wrangell’s medical center director. Find an archive of these educational announcements and other COVID news here

Get in touch with KSTK at news@kstk.org or (907) 874-2345.