All masked up/The White House

One of President Joe Biden’s first acts in office on Wednesday was to order masks on “all persons in federal buildings or on federal lands.” 

Federal officials in Alaska were Thursday trying to figure out what the latter meant and offering mixed signals.

Alaska is home to more federal lands than any state in the nation. About 60 percent of lands managed by the National Park Service – some 56 million acres, an acreage greater than the state of Minnesota – are in the 49th state. 

National media was reporting masks are now required in those parks.

“Biden Prioritizes Mask Mandates for National Parks,” Travel+Leisure magazine headlined. 

“If you’re going to visit a national park, you’ll have to wear a mask,” the Sacramento Bee reported from California.

But Peter Christian, the Alaska Region spokesman for the Park Service, wasn’t sure that was correct.

“We don’t know yet,” he said. “We’re waiting to hear.”

Most of Alaska’s parks are remote wilderness and masking there would make little sense. SARS-CoV-2, the virus driving the COVID-19 pandemic that is now blamed for more than 401,000 deaths across the country, is mainly transmitted person to person.

It is almost impossible to catch it without coming in contact with an infected person, although Chinese researchers have suggested the virus could be spread by contaminated seafood or meat and transmission from domestic mink to humans has been documented in the Netherlands. 

Safe wilderness hideaway

The virus has not been found in wild mink anywhere or in Alaska mink, caribou, wolves, bear, snowshoe hares or any other animals more common than people in most Alaska parks.

Rod Arno, the director of the Alaska Outdoor Council (AOC), said a government spokesman told his organization that the mask rule would not apply outdoors in parks in Alaska.  The AOC is the state’s largest outdoor recreation group.

Biden’s executive order does provide for exemptions from the national mandate.

“Heads of agencies may make categorical or case-by-case exceptions in implementing (the order)…to the extent that doing so is necessary or required by law, and consistent with applicable law,” it says. “If heads of agencies make such exceptions, they shall require appropriate alternative safeguards, such as additional physical distancing measures, additional testing, or reconfiguration of workspace, consistent with applicable law.  Heads of agencies shall document all exceptions in writing.”

It was unclear Thursday whether Alaska federal lands managers had begun drafting such documents.

The Park Service is but one of a variety of federal agencies overseeing the vast amount of federal land in the 49th state. All told, the Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Forest Service, the military and other entities control about 226 million acres or 61.79 percent of the state, according to Ballotpedia. 

Most, but not all, of that land is remote. The BLM-managed Campbell Tract covers 730-acres of forest and swamps on the eastern edge of Anchorage and abuts the city’s Far North Bicentennial Park. Both are extremely popular in the winter with both cross-country skiers and fat-tired cyclists.

BLM Anchorage-area spokeswoman Maureen Clark on Wednesday said she doesn’t know what the new order means.

“We are still awaiting guidance from the Department of the Interior on implementation of the mask mandate,” she said.

Asked point blank if it was OK to ride the trails in the Campbell Tract without a mask at this time, she said she didn’t know. Biden’s order is now part of the federal legal code, and it’s not impossible some “by the book” official could decide to enforce it.

The new law was written into Section 7902 of Title 5 of the U.S. Code, according to the White House statement. The section covers “safety programs” for federal employees.

It says “the President may:”

  • Establish safety councils
  • “Undertake such other measures as he considers proper
    to prevent injuries and accidents to employees of the agencies.”
  • And direct agencies to “develop and support organized safety promotion to reduce accidents and injuries among employees…encourage safe practices, and eliminate work hazards and health risks.”

There no mentions of powers to mandate the behaviors of non-agency employees. The sole penalty clause in Title 5 says this:

“An employee or individual who violates section 7323 or 7324 of this title shall be removed from his position, and funds appropriated for the position from which removed thereafter may not be used to pay the employee or individual. However, if the Merit System Protection Board finds by unanimous vote that the violation does not warrant removal, a penalty of not less than 30 days’ suspension without pay shall be imposed by direction of the Board.”

Section 7323 limits the political activities of federal employees. Section 7324 bans political activity by federal employees while “on duty.”

Degree of risk

It is unclear whether a mask requirement on federal lands in Alaska would contribute much, if any, protection to anyone from the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

A peer-reviewed study published in The Journal of Infectious Disease in November concluded outdoor transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and other infectious virus is “not impossible,” but at least 18.7 times less likely than indoor transmission. 

Where outdoor transmission did occur, the study said, it appeared tied to “high-density outdoor gatherings.” “The outdoor outbreak that occurred at the White House Rose Garden event on September 26, 2020, where few of the 200 attendees were wearing masks or maintaining social distancing measures” was specifically cited.

It is believed that is where former President Donald Trump, then-first lady Melania Trump and a half dozen others contracted COVID-19. All of the attendees at the event to celebrate U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney were seated tight together to listen to speeches and, as NPR noted, were seen hugging, kissing and rubbing shoulders before and after the speeches.

None of the latter are good ideas – masked or not – in places where infection rates are high as they are in the nation’s capital.

Such close contacts are rare on the federal lands in Alaska, but several competitive events staged along the historic Iditarod Trail do bring together groups of people. All of those events, however, operate on BLM permits and could be restricted without the federal order.

The situation in Alaska is unique in other ways. By accident or design, the state appears to have done a very good job of managing the pandemic. The Worldometer COVID-19 tracker puts the state’s COVID-19 death rate of 34 per 100,000 at the third lowest in the nation behind only Hawaii and Vermont.

The death rate in the nation’s capital city is more than three and a half times higher.  The death rate for the hard hit Northeast states of New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts is about six times higher.

Most of the use of federal lands in Alaska involves physical activities – snowmobiling, skiing, fat-tired biking, snowshoeing – that are strenuous or can be strenuous. The World Health Organizations recommends against wearing a mask in those situations.

“Even when you’re in an area of COVID-19 transmission, masks should not be worn during vigorous physical activity because of the risk of reducing your breathing capacity,” it says. “No matter how intensely you exercise, keep at least one meter (3 feet, 3 inches) away from others.

The recommended, so-called social distancing in the U.S. is six feet. Maintaining a three-to six-foot separation from on most of the federal land in Alaska is easy, and in many cases it is not much more difficult to maintain a three to six hundred yard distance or three to six miles.








11 replies »

  1. Over 30 Executive orders in his first day in office…and I am still old enough to remember when the people’s business was done in Congress.
    We just went from a mean dictator to a mellow dictator that says “Come on man” a lot.
    Unfortunately I do not see any silver lining to any of this other than putting an end to the Keystone XL project. Canada has shown us over the last yr that they are no longer our BFF and America will need to reign in their cockiness over the next few years. It is not in our national interest to be a dumping ground for their toxic tar sands oil or Bitumen. Tax Canadians more on all imports & exports and see if their tune changes. We can no longer continue to subsidize the London bankers business in Canada.

    • S.S,have to think thru the winners and losers on that one.Refiners probably like the massive crude grade price differential.BOTO,US crude indepenant producers like filling that market,although the grades aren’t anywhere close to being similar.
      And then of course theres the green/plains indians optics,which this is how its being framed.

    • Yep, the end to the Keystone pipeline put 70,000 on the unemployment line while furthering our dependence on Biden’s Putin and Venezuela oil. And that was just in one day..Remember when Dems said “Trump better not issue any EO’s”. Curious Steve how Trump was a dictator or fascist? It should be clear with the censoring and book burning Democrats who the fascists and dictators are and they sure as hell aren’t “soft dictators” by any means.
      Poor Dementia Joe doesn’t even know where he is at.. Funny how the Dems can’t call Harris the first female VP since they don’t recognize genders. Oh, the irony. Hahaha

      • Bryan,
        I’ll tell you what I told my parents a few hours ago…
        ALL THIS ____ started under Trump & a Republican led Senate.
        MASKS, Social distancing, Lock-downs, Limiting our travel, Shuttering small business, etc.
        Funny how Biden immediately takes a national position to the whole Covid response, while your buddy Trump left it up to the states to create chaos & destroy our local economies.
        Biden didn’t end 70,000 jobs, Wallstreet has no appetite to fund additional fossil fuel projects when co’s like Tesla are generating nearly 1Trillion dollars in market cap.
        The green economy is a cash cow with investors from all over the globe pouring into it.
        Hell, even Tencent in China has around a 10% stake in Tesla’s future.
        Why can’t the Republicans jump on board the gravy train?

      • Steve, masks, lockdowns, etc.. may have been under the Trump Admin but it was the states who orchestrated it. Compare California and Florida. Big difference in quality of life and small businesses. Trump had no control over the states.. Remember Trump offered feds several times to Democrat gov/mayors to help quell their 9 months of riots and attacks on Federal buildings. I think you blame state Democrat ineptness on Trump.

      • Bryan,
        Old ways are dying, new ways whatever that means are the transition.You can be the windshield or you can be the bug(or perhaps a bit of both in a transition phase).
        A bit off topic, but not.A whole lot of interest in the Ted Steven Int.,it seems that logistics has attracted some real attention,again.
        Still won’t do much for State coffers, but will make a lot of temp and lesser paying permanent jobs.Perhaps help out Anch tax base.

  2. I wonder if a guy were say moose hunting on a river in remote Alaska using a hovercraft if he would have to wear a mask? I could see that going all the way to the Supreme Court twice! What about whilst driving through federal lands by yourself, is a mask required then?

    Let’s not forget that within hours of signing this executive order the guy who signed it forgot about signing it and was strolling around with cameras in tow maskless on federal land…talk about confusion.

    • Yeah steve , dont you think federal lands in a state is unconstitutional? Where do they get off thinking they own pieces of a state ? Technically us government is supposed to just be government. Not a technical land baron or country of its own. Federal government was enacted to further the rights of its citizens and the states not to further its own rights. Time to reset do judicial review and get their ever creeping fingers out of a pie they don’t own. Technically they have no right to expand jurisdiction the way they have . Granted the supremes have enabled their unconstitutional actions. Its time to take our country and liberty back . Like you im tired of dubious legal decisions that enable erosion of liberty and right. And what the heck is a presidential decree , order or whatever they want to call it . Lets be honest and call it what it is . Tyranny, erosion of liberty and un just actions.

      • Executive orders that infringe on a citizens rights in any way is illegal and tyranny. “Vested with executive power” is for government management. Not control of citizens rights. Its time to put facts back in order. Any other interpretation of the constitution was a mistake and over reach. We have allowed over reach far to long and our patience should be thin . Tyrannical actions must not stand . Our courts refused to do their job after 2020 elections and accept lawsuits to fully review the vote the court used any and every excuse to renege on responsibility. Its now our responsibility to set government right and herd it back to its rightful place as a tool of the people to further our happiness and liberty. No other use for government is necessary. American Citizens do not need an emperor to enact decrees that enfringe on their rights and undermine the whole idea of American democracy.

      • An example of a correct and just legal use of executive order is George Washington first order in 1789 he directed heads of executive departments to submit reports about their operations. Anything beyond legal management of government itself by executive order is tyranny, illegal and usurpation of power and citizens or states rights . It absolutely must be resisted and denied. Its time to take our liberty and personal lives back . Government has absolutely no right to infringe upon us. Except as carefully outlined in the constitution. Executive order my hind end ! Democracy must prevail, tyranny must fall .

Leave a Reply