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.
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.
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.