Update, Wednesday, 1:15 p.m.: Bronson vetoes Anchorage mask mandate
Most Anchorage residents will have to wear masks in indoor public places after the Assembly passed an emergency ordinance late Tuesday.
The Assembly approved the measure in a 9-1 vote. It took effect immediately and sidestepped a prolonged and chaotic public hearing process that had extended for nearly two weeks.
The ordinance mandates that people wear masks in indoor public places and in communal spaces. Children under age 5, people in police custody, people participating in sports, people at church and Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration are exempted from the mandate.
Businesses must deny entry to people who aren’t wearing masks and also ensure that employees have access to masks when required.
“This is not something done lightly. It is done after a considerable amount of public input. But the time to act is now. We need to do it,” Midtown Assembly member Meg Zaletel said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Zaletel and East Anchorage Assembly member Pete Petersen co-sponsored the emergency ordinance. They introduced it at Tuesday’s regular Assembly meeting where the chambers were mostly empty of the crowds.
“We’ve heard from over 200 people in person and over the phone and have received over 3,000 email testimonies,” said Petersen. “Those testimonies have been critical in improving our original ordinance.”
The emergency ordinance eliminates some pieces of the previous proposed ordinance, including one that allowed citizens to report residents for not wearing masks. It also doesn’t define what the penalty for violations would be.
The measure comes as Alaska continues to rank as the state with the highest rate of COVID-19 cases in the nation. Several hospitals are operating under crisis standards of care.
“We just don’t want a public health crisis,” said Petersen. “As hundreds of more people become infected with the virus this past week, Alaska still has the highest rate in the nation of cases per 100,000 population. This masking ordinance is to help bring those numbers down and preserve community health and save lives.”
Soon after the Assembly voted 9-1 to pass the emergency ordinance late Tuesday night, Mayor Dave Bronson posted on Facebook that he plans to veto it.
The Assembly can override a veto with eight votes.
Chugiak/Eagle River Assembly member Crystal Kennedy was the only member to vote against the ordinance. Jamie Allard, who also represents Chugiak/Eagle River, initially voted against it too, but it turned out the vote didn’t take place in the right order. When the Assembly did an official vote, Allard was not on the phone anymore.
Before she hung up, Allard was vocal in her opposition to the ordinance and how it was passed.
At one point, she interrupted Downtown Assembly member Chris Constant, who was presiding over the meeting, calling him “insane” and “absolutely disgusting” after he referred to someone who had been hospitalized with COVID-19 after attending an Assembly meeting. In a follow-up interview, Allard said that the reason she was off for the official vote was because she was working with the hospitalized man’s doctor to coordinate a family visit.
The Anchorage Health Department’s chief medical officer, Dr. Michael Savitt, also testified against requiring masks, saying that surgical masks only prevent some transmission.
“It’s good for about maybe 10%, upwards to 30%, depending on what studies you look at,” he said. “I will tell you that the FDA will not approve any medication or vaccination based on 30% efficacy.”
He said case counts have been trending downward over the past two weeks.
The Assembly passed the emergency ordinance just as it was about to enter its second week of public testimony on a proposed mask ordinance. Unlike the ordinance, an emergency ordinance doesn’t require public testimony as long as nine of the 11 members vote in favor of it.
The ordinance could last as long as 60 days or until two of the city’s three hospitals are not operating at crisis levels or Anchorage doesn’t have a high rate of COVID-19 spread.
Bronson and most of his administration’s senior staff, including Municipal Manager Amy Demboski, did not attend the meeting. Demboski and Municipal Attorney Patrick Bergt recently tested positive for COVID-19. Additionally, most members of the Assembly participated over the phone. Members Zaletel, Chris Constant and John Weddleton were the only Assembly members at the meeting in person.
In his Facebook post, Bronson — who has strongly opposed COVID-19 restrictions — criticized Assembly members for approving the emergency ordinance “under the cloak of darkness” and without public testimony. He accused them of breaking the public trust.
In a statement just before midnight, the Anchorage Assembly said that over six public meetings it heard from 276 people in person about a proposed mask mandate. It also got written comments from more than 4,000 people.
While most of the in-person comments opposed a mask mandate, a majority of the written comments supported one, the Assembly has said.
“The Anchorage Assembly has made a concerted effort to protect the public process to ensure that as many people as possible had an opportunity to voice their opinion on the subject before we made our decision,” the statement said. “However, the public process has been abused by members of our community who have conspired to prevent the Assembly from translating those perspectives into much needed action.”
Alaska Public Media’s Lex Treinen contributed to this story.