Anchorage emergency declaration extended to June, some measures to relax in coming weeks

Anchorage Assembly Chair Forrest Dunbar wearing a mask during the body’s meeting on extending the city’s civil emergency declaration.

The Anchorage Assembly voted unanimously Tuesday night to extend the mayor’s declaration of a civil emergency through June 5. The move allows the administration to keep using special powers to more swiftly respond to the coronavirus, but does not mean that all of the current “hunker down” orders will remain in place that long. City hall officials say they plan on relaxing some of the current measures in the weeks ahead.

However, the process around approving the extension was clouded with misinformation spread online about what the Assembly was actually voting on. Members said they’d received a flood of angry feedback from constituents about the measure.

Initially, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s administration asked for an extension of its emergency powers through Nov. 15, the same date as the Legislature approved for the governor. Berkowitz said he does not expect the current level of closures and social distancing to last that long, but that it gives officials more tools to respond to the coronavirus in its next phase.

“We do not anticipate being in a hunker-down mode for very much longer,” Berkowitz said from behind a cloth mask. “But as we confront the reality of what it takes to manage the city’s response to a pandemic, it is going to take an ongoing effort. The pandemic will not disappear when the hunker down order disappears.”

The administration announced it is coordinating with state officials on allowing elective medical procedures to re-start in the near future. It also plans to relax some of its rules for employees at businesses currently designated non-critical.

The Assembly amended the proposal, voting for the civil emergency declaration to expire in June instead of November. It also asked the administration for more consistent weekly reporting justifying measures that bypass the normal public process. And the body passed a resolution mirroring guidance from the state encouraging residents to wear face coverings in public.

The Assembly said it received a flood of negative comments about the proposal. Many appeared to have been animated by misleading information spread on a conservative blog and at least one political Facebook page. Some posts erroneously portray the resolution as a power grab by the mayor aiming to unilaterally keep the economy shut down through the November elections.

Because of social distancing measures, the Assembly is only taking public testimony over the phone, and heard from about a dozen people at its meeting. Some of those who spoke decried unjust executive tyranny. One person championed unproven health claims about a known cure for COVID-19.

Others explained the very real toll inflicted by the economic shutdown for businesses that have been deemed non-essential.

“The general consensus from other small, local non-essential businesses owners like myself is that we can’t survive another two to six weeks with zero revenue coming in, and many of us will be forced to make the hard decisions to close our doors forever with every passing week, if things remain as they currently stand,” said Dan Newman, president of a local auction and appraisal business.

He and several others who testified want more latitude for businesses to open if they can operate safely under state and federal guidelines.

Medical professionals think that might be premature. Speaking on behalf of the board of the Alaska Hospitals Group, and as a physician who has cared for COVID-19 patients, Dr. Ryan Webb told the Assembly a rush of patients could still overwhelm the state’s fragile healthcare system.

“I think from the majority of physicians who provide inpatient or acute care to those within the hospital, we still see value in maintaining that excess of capacity,” Webb said. “At least for the next week, if not perhaps a bit longer, in order to ensure that we’re ready for a possible surge.”

The state has not yet reached its projected peak in COVID cases.

City officials are expected to announce modifications to the current hunker down orders in Anchorage during the coming days.