By Associated Press - Tuesday, December 1, 2020

KENAI, Alaska (AP) - Some Alaska borough attorneys have refuted a claim by the state’s top lawyer that boroughs can enact mask mandates in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Attorneys representing second-class boroughs in the state sent a letter to Alaska Acting Attorney General Ed Sniffen, The Peninsula Clarion reported Sunday.

Sniffen last month said municipalities, including the state’s second-class boroughs, can mandate face masks using their disaster powers.

Alaska has 18 organized boroughs and one unorganized borough covering more than half the state, the Alaska Municipal League’s website said. Second-class boroughs must receive voter approval to exercise many powers, while first-class boroughs can exercise any power not prohibited by law by adopting ordinances.

The attorneys’ Nov. 18 letter described specific laws prohibiting second-class boroughs from enacting mask mandates in response to a pandemic.

The letter was signed by attorneys for the Aleutians East, Bristol Bay, Fairbanks North Star, Kenai Peninsula, Ketchikan Gateway, Kodiak Island and Matanuska-Susitna boroughs.

Alaska law does not “empower a political subdivision to perform responsibilities that it is not otherwise empowered to perform” during an emergency, the letter said.

Second-class boroughs can establish emergency shelters, maintain websites with information for residents and coordinate with private and public agencies engaged in disaster response activities, among other things, the attorneys wrote.

“Second class boroughs do not have ‘police powers’ or general health and social services powers and cannot implement measures for the protection of the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens as your office suggests,” the letter to Sniffen said.

Sniffen heads the state Department of Law and a spokesperson, Maria Bahr, did not immediately respond Tuesday to an email seeking comment on the letter.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some - especially older adults and people with existing health problems - it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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