Dillingham residents ask City Council for student athlete mask exemption at recent meeting

Oct 6, 2020

Dillingham’s City Council extended health and safety restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic at its meeting last week. But some community members voiced concerns about what that means for students hoping to participate in sports like wrestling. 

Wrestlers from Dillingham and Newhalen compete at the region's 2018 Sockeye Conference. December 8, 2018.
Credit Izzy Ross/KDLG

Dillingham’s current COVID-19 mitigation measures include a required travel form for people coming into the community and a 14-day quarantine or two tests at least 10 days apart, with one taken in Dillingham at least 72 hours after arriving. They also require people to wear masks in public places, including schools.

At Thursday's City Council meeting, a big theme was the effect of restrictions on kids’ mental health — specifically regarding the mask requirement.

During public testimony, several people asked the council to make an exemption and allow students to practice sports inside without masks.

The Center for Disease Control says that some athletes may not be able to wear a mask during high intensity activities if they find it difficult to breath, although it says that individual programs should determine whether or not their athletes wear masks when playing a sport after considering the state and local requirements they must follow. 

Jack Savo, Jr., is an assistant wrestling coach at the Dillingham Middle/High School.

“I am where I’m at today because of high school sports, specifically wrestling," he said. "We have a couple kids on our team that quite frankly are doing as well as they are in the community and the school because of the sport.”

Savo said that while they may not be able to travel and compete with other teams this season, if the city makes an exemption for wrestlers, they will at least be able to practice.

In a follow-up interview, Savo said his goal is to “keep the kids together” and continue to build a team environment. 

Mike Hink has kids who wrestle and play volleyball. He also asked the city for an exemption.

“Those seasons are coming up. And there’s very little they can do outdoors to allow the students to actually engage in these sports and actually learn and appreciate that endeavor. And it’s very important for them physically and mentally,” he said.

Hink pointed out that Dillingham is still at low risk for spread of coronavirus, and that the Alaska School Activities Association has laid out recommendations for students to continue practicing and competing.

Another community member, Shireen Glosser, said that the restrictions were damaging Dillingham’s “sense of community.”

“This quarantine is not in our best interest," she said. "Our children are losing their education, they’re losing their physical activity, they’re losing their aspirations. They’re becoming isolated, which leads to depression.”

In the end, the council did not grant an exemption for student athletes to forego masks during practice. Councilmember Gregg Marxmiller said he was wary of making exceptions to the current rules.

“I do understand the sports issue, and it seems reasonable to me," he said. "But I have to put that into balance of -- that people aren’t wearing masks, they’re supposed to wear masks, and that’s the way it gets transmitted. Is it really fair to make more exemptions and lessen the ordinance itself.”

The CDC recommends that people wear masks in public settings, and says the more people that use masks, the more likely they are to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

People voiced support for the council’s measures as well, saying that the strict protective measures were the reason for Dillingham’s low case counts. Norm Van Vactor, the CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, travelled recently, and he quarantined upon his return.

“As difficult as that is, I want to tell you, I’m thankful and grateful that we are in a community that cares, and we are a community that is trying to be as safe as we can possibly be,” he said. 

The council voted unanimously to extend its COVID-19 measures. It’s expecting to implement a new way of managing COVID-19 in the community.

The plan would create an Emergency Operations Center with the authority to establish regulations to manage COVID-19, and modify those regulations as the situation changes. 

Dillingham’s current protective measures expire at 11:59 p.m. on November 5.

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.