Anchorage mask ordinance could sidestep mayor’s opposition to public health mandates

A sign outside of Title Wave Books on Aug. 30, 2021, in Anchorage encourages customers to wear face masks. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

People in Anchorage may have to mask up in indoor public settings and at large outdoor gatherings as early as next week under an ordinance that was introduced Monday.

Assembly members Pete Petersen and Meg Zaletel introduced the proposed ordinance at a special Assembly meeting. It comes as hospital workers sound increasing alarms about a crush of COVID-19 patients and full ICUs.

The Assembly could vote on the proposed ordinance as soon as next Tuesday and, if approved, it’d go into effect immediately. But the proposal is expected to face opposition from Mayor Dave Bronson, who is staunchly against mandated public health measures, including masks. In a written statement, Bronson said he opposed the new ordinance.

“I believe it is heavy-handed, out of line with the will of the people and businesses of Anchorage, and it serves as just the latest example of how this Assembly believes it must force people into submission through fear and government sanctions,” he said.

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The Assembly has already passed two resolutions at recent meetings asking Bronson to require masks in municipal buildings, but the mayor has ignored those, saying masks should remain a personal choice

Zaletel said after hearing that Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson was discouraging servicemen from going into places in Anchorage that don’t have masking or social distancing rules, she thought it was necessary for the Assembly to do more. 

“I think we have to do what we can to support our health care system,” she said “They’ve made it very clear what they need and we need to be a part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

If the ordinance passes the Assembly, the mayor could veto it.

It takes eight Assembly members to override a veto. If they do, it’s unclear how the rules would be enforced without mayoral support. 

Zaletel acknowledged the enforcement challenge but said that it was about sending a message to the administration after dozens of hospital workers demanded action at the last Assembly meeting

“If he says he won’t enforce it, then I think we need to look at what other enforcement mechanisms might exist,” she said. 

RELATED: Former Anchorage epidemiologist says mayor’s inability to help with rising COVID hospitalizations ‘doesn’t quite make sense’

The ordinance would require everyone — regardless of vaccination status — to wear a mask in indoor public settings and at large, crowded, outdoor public events. 

There are a few exceptions, including for children under the age of 2 and for people with disabilities. Also, it says, masks would be recommended, but not required, for children ages 2 to 5.

The ordinance would also allow vaccinated employees working in a separate room to go unmasked, as long as their employers verify their vaccine status. 

If approved by the Assembly, the ordinance would be in effect until Dec. 31 as long as the city remains at a high or substantial transmission risk level. Substantial transmission is defined as 50 or more COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days. Anchorage currently has a case rate of 889 cases, according to state data. 

Additionally, the ordinance asks the mayor to “strongly encourage” masking and vaccination through public messaging. 

At Monday’s meeting at City Hall, where the ordinance was introduced, about a half dozen members of the public spoke out against the proposed rules as well as the public process. The text of the ordinance wasn’t available to the public online before the meeting, which was held at a conference room at City Hall where space was limited. 

Zaletel said the meeting was properly noticed and pointed out that the ordinance was introduced and will be voted on at a future meeting. She said she hoped it would come up at the regular Assembly meeting scheduled for next Tuesday, Sept. 28, but acknowledged that with the busy agenda, it might have to wait until later.

This story has been updated.

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