Dermot Cole

The press coverage of the Dunleavy COVID-19 shows—at which reporters function largely as props called upon to ask questions that rarely get a direct answer—doesn’t convey the unfocused nature of the presentations or the governor’s desire to be vague.

The shows are managed by the governor and his staff to allow Dunleavy to give rambling speeches with no interruptions.

While nearly every question—dumb or otherwise—merits a “That’s a great question,” introductory response, the governor spends most of his time not replying to whatever is asked, especially when a genuinely good question comes up.

When Dunleavy reaches cruising speed, it’s like he is in a competitive talking contest, delivering COVID-19 talking points, feel-good bromides and cliches for so long that no one quite remembers the question that prompted the monologue. He could give lessons on how to filibuster.

One big issue in Alaska right now is why Dunleavy won’t call for a statewide mask mandate. It’s something he doesn’t want to talk about, so he deals with the subject in the most roundabout manner, dancing with words.

Earlier this month, Dunleavy began talking about masks 28 minutes into his show.

“You know the issue of masks has become really controversial across the country,” he began. “It doesn’t appear to be an issue in other countries, but in this country it has. To some degree it’s becoming politicized. There’s no doubt. The question is, Do masks ‘quote’ work?

“In order to be able to answer that the first question is what is it supposed to do? What’s the goal in wearing ‘quote,’ a mask. There’s different types of masks.”

Twelve minutes later, he was still talking, after “quote” meandering more than the Tanana River.

He dipped into and out of the topic, talking about the advantages of masks, the N95, the surgical mask, what happens when you cough, the infectious nature of the virus and how special we are in Alaska. While ranging far and wide, he never gave a clear explanation on why he opposes a mask mandate, but suggested he might think it is an infringement on individual rights.

He said in other states mandates are being put into place to protect public health.

“So where I’m going with this is, you know you’ve seen today in the news, there’s a lot of places in the Lower 48 that are mandating behaviors, they’re going to mandate this. And to me, I understand it from this perspective—I don’t necessarily agree with the mandate—but I understand why they’re doing it.”

“And it’s, they’re reaching a place—some of them—this is across the political spectrum. You can look at the different states that have different groups in charge right now. But it’s really an act of desperation because we don’t have a vaccination at this point. So they’re trying to slow down the spread,” he said.

“And the only thing I would ask Alaskans is this: I certainly don’t want to infringe upon the rights of folks. I take that very seriously. I mean people that know me and know where I come from on our individual rights, which I think are, it’s what makes America different than any other country in the world,” he said.

“But like our parents taught us, if we can turn away, if it was a non-issue—your projection in a sneeze or cough—we would just be talking to people and just cough in their face.”

“Just the thought of that, we know, is not right. And there’s some medical evidence behind that,” he said.

He spoke in a general way about voluntary compliance, that people should wear masks without being forced to do so, engage in social distancing, limit trips to the grocery store, etc.

“But again, we don’t need to take draconian actions here in Alaska,” he said, without ever saying a mask mandate is draconian. “You’ve proven to yourselves and to everybody, really to this country,” that the spread can be reduced if people take certain steps.

He said people should look at each other before going to the grocery store and say, “Why don’t you throw a mask on?”

And just what’s going to happen if the number of cases keeps climbing in Alaska and things get desperate and the voluntary method continues to fail? No answer to that one.

A source has told me that the administration has contracted with Dittman Research, Dunleavy’s favorite pollster, to measure public opinion about masks. So far, the state has declined to respond to my request about this report.

We really don’t need any public polling on masks. We need leadership from the governor and a statewide mandate to wear masks.

Later in the publicity show, a reporter asked Dunleavy if he is considering a mask mandate for schools to protect students and staff.

That is an urgent question that deserves a direct reply because school starts in less than a month.

Dunleavy said the state would look at everything, that conversations are taking place, that the playbook has not been written, that contingencies and alternatives are under review, that decisions would be based on the best science, and we will get through this. “We’re gonna take the best approaches for Alaska,” he said.

He spoke for three minutes and never mentioned masks or if he and Education Commissioner Michael Johnson are considering a mask mandate.

During a real press conference, a reporter would repeat the question and ask why Dunleavy went to such great lengths to dodge it. The press coverage of the publicity show should have highlighted the governor’s refusal to answer whether a mask mandate is under consideration, but it didn’t.

The governor gets away with this because he controls the COVID-19 show and Alaska news organizations accept his chronic evasion and refuse to call him on it.

Dermot Cole can be reached at

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