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Local Leaders Concerned Over Western Alaskans Not Self-Quarantining

Photo: Matthew Smith, KNOM.
Photo: Matthew Smith, KNOM.

Bering Strait communities are struggling to find solutions on how to enforce quarantines for people who are required to be in 14-day self-isolation, as mandated by local and state regulations related to COVID-19.

By Friday, 17 out of 20 communities in the Bering Strait Region had passed some type of local travel regulations or restrictions. But during a regional conference call earlier that morning, many community leaders shared concerns over the lack of enforcement of their new travel bans and regulations. While airlines that service the villages, including Bering Air, have reduced regular passenger flight service, leaders are frustrated by community members who recently returned from travel and aren’t self-isolating at home.

One of the Governor’s mandates requires all Alaskans traveling into the state, from the outside, to self-quarantine at their final destination for 14 days. A violation of that mandate is punishable by a fine or imprisonment.

Nome’s existing travel ban extends that self-quarantine measure to anyone flying in from elsewhere in Alaska. Nome’s leadership is a bit more empowered by language of the City’s emergency ordinance as City Manager Glenn Steckman explains:

“Those who are signing permits understand that they can be fined according to the law, that’s part of our emergency declaration.”

But that applies to visitors entering the City of Nome and not necessarily the other Bering Strait communities.

Melanie Bahnke, the CEO of Kawerak, has been speaking with state officials and shared that regional villages are running into difficulties enforcing laws that are tighter than the ones already mandated by the governor.

“We were told that our VPSOs cannot go hands on to enforce a city or tribal ordinance, only state laws are what our VPSOs can enforce so we’re communicating that to the villages where we do have VPSOs so that they’re clear about our VPSO limitations.”

And on top of that, many communities in the Bering Strait Region do not have a Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO). Tribal laws can be enforced by a tribal police officer though, if communities have that option.

In an effort to further implement social distancing, many communities say they have taken measures to ban public gatherings and limit customers in public places to prevent the potential spread of the coronavirus.

With the latest mandate passed by Governor Mike Dunleavy Friday night, ordering all Alaskans to shelter-in-place, it is unclear how that will affect communities’ ability to enforce self-quarantining in the Bering Strait Region.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Bering Air suspended regular passenger service. Bering Air representatives say regular passenger service has been reduced.

Image at top: A Village Public Safety Officer vehicle, stock image. Photo from Matthew Smith, KNOM file.

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We acknowledge that KNOM Radio Mission is located on the customary lands of Indigenous peoples. 

Based in the Bering Strait region, KNOM broadcasts throughout the homelands of the Iñupiaq, Siberian Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Yup’ik peoples.