Berkowitz’s office pushes back on AG memo exempting state buildings from mask order

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz announces a mask mandate for the municipality during a press conference on Friday, June 26, 2020. (Screenshot of meeting broadcast via Facebook Live)

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s office pushed back on Monday after the state Attorney General attempted to limit the mayor’s mask order in state of Alaska buildings and facilities.

“The Attorney General’s memo sows confusion and unnecessarily risks the health and safety of Anchorage residents who do business with or work for state agencies,” read a statement from municipal attorney Kate Vogel.

On Friday evening, hours after Berkowitz announced a mask order for indoor, public spaces in Anchorage, Attorney General Kevin Clarkson released a memo stating that the order “does not apply to State of Alaska buildings and facilities within the Municipality of Anchorage.”

Vogel’s statement argued that Clarkson’s exemption is invalid. Under state law, home rule municipalities like Anchorage are structured so that power resides at the local level. According to Vogel, the state has no power to override the city’s mask order. The mask order remains in full effect, she wrote, including in state buildings and facilities.

“Undermining a local public health order with respect to state buildings … is bad for the health of our community,” wrote Vogel. “The Attorney General’s memo also puts State of Alaska employees in legal jeopardy by giving them inaccurate legal advice.”

Brian Penner is the business manager for the Alaska Public Employees Association, which represents more than 2,000 state employees. While many state employees continue to work from home, Penner said many that are at work are in high-risk positions like nursing facilities and correctional institutions. He said the Attorney General’s memo showed “outright disdain” for state employees.

“Shown by his choice to not mandate the minimal protections required to keep the virus spread down. So it’s really hard to reconcile his advice that people wear masks, and then to make an unnecessary announcement, quite frankly, that it’s optional in state buildings.”

The Dunleavy administration encourages residents to wear masks, according to deputy communications director, Jeff Turner. In an emailed statement, he added that the governor is not opposed to the city’s decision to require face masks.

“[The] administration has always allowed local governments, in consultation with the state, the ability to implement health mandates based on the circumstances in a community. Municipal health mandates and codes apply to state buildings and facilities. In this case, the Governor decided to preempt the municipal mandatory mask mandate for state buildings and facilities in the Municipality of Anchorage.

Asked whether the municipality may take legal action against the state to resolve the issue, Berkowitz’s office said they are still evaluating their options, but their priority remains public health.