A sharply divided Palmer City Council voted June 8 to approve using a $30,000 state grant to incentivize people into getting COVID shots.
After lengthy debate, the council voted 4-3 to give a passthrough grant from the Alaska Dept. of Health & Social Services to the Greater Palmer Chamber of Commerce. This allows the Chamber to dole out monetary rewards known as “bingles,” which any resident who agrees to get vaccinated can then spend at local shops.
Palmer Mayor Edna DeVries objected, saying the plan discriminates against the majority of residents who don’t want a COVID shot.
“I think the percentage of people within the city of Palmer, as well as within the (Mat-Su) Borough that are resisting doing the vaccines is astonishingly high compared to those that have,” she said. “So, in that way, allowing this money to be given to the population that will do the vaccines, that is discriminatory.”
She also objected to the government enticing people into doing something they wouldn’t otherwise agree to.
“But you’re going to get, you know, $50 worth of bingles to spend in a local store,” she said.
Assemblyman Brian Daniels, who strongly favored the idea, shot back.
“You think money’s going to be the defining factor of whether or not you get a vaccine?” he said.
“Well, if money is not the defining factor, why are we doing this?” DeVries pressed.
Daniels said he “likes” the idea of giving bingles to the vaccinated, because it helps keep money in Palmer.
As a local business owner, Daniels could personally benefit from the bingles incentive scheme. Bingles are a local form of currency that area businesses use to keep money circulating in Palmer. Daniels co-owns 203 Kombucha, which is one 36 stores that accept bingles.
“Let’s support our city,” he said. “I think this is a really good cause and I think not to support it is a wrong choice. People have a free will to do whatever they want.”
Council Member Richard Best was among the minority block that opposed the plan. His concerns were similar to those of the mayor.
“There is a subset of our populous that won’t be able to participate because of medical concerns that they might have, and that is discriminatory,” Best said. “Because of a medical situation, they won’t be participating in getting the injection (and) they won’t be getting a bingle … so, yes, it is a discrimination of sorts.”
Despite the low vaccine rate, the state lists virus transmission rates in the Mat-Su as “low.”
Best also questioned whether a monetary-type incentive was even allowable according to the grant’s stipulations, which specifically prohibit actions considered “publicity and propaganda.” Dolling out bingles to influence people’s behavior looks a lot like publicity and propaganda, Best said.
City Attorney Michael Gatti admitted that the grant did not appear to be intended for incentivizing vaccinations, although he said that may still be allowed. Ultimately, he urged councilmembers to check back with the state to make sure bingles were permitted under the grant’s conditions.
City Manager John Moosey said he had already discussed the issue at length with officials in Health Commissioner Adam Crum’s office.
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“This is coming from the governor’s office through Mr. Crum, in conversation, who is very concerned that people are not being encouraged to get a vaccine, which the governor’s office believes is very important,” Moosey said. “They also believe that local government and state government harping is not getting the message across because who listens to local government? So, they have been reaching out to local business and business opportunities to help spread the word and encourage that.”
Palmer Deputy Mayor Sabrena Combs wholeheartedly backed the idea, which she said is happening all over the state. She was joined by councilmembers Daniels, Julie Berberich and Jill Valerius in approving the grant use. Councilmembers Steve Carrington and Richard Best joined the mayor in opposition.
“There are many, many communities that are coming up with ways to promote this,” Combs said in support of offering rewards for COVID shots.
In general, COVID vaccinations have dropped off dramatically in Alaska over the past two months, despite continued campaigns from the state and local governments to push the experimental injection. The Mat-Su remains one of the least vaccinated areas of Alaska with nearly 70% of the population declining the shots. Despite the low vaccine rate, the state lists virus transmission rates in the Mat-Su as “low.”