Fight over required health precautions in Anchorage Assembly chamber ends meeting early

Anchorage municipal manager Amy Demboski at the Oct. 27, 2021 Anchorage Assembly meeting. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage Assembly meeting ended earlier than expected Wednesday, with Assembly leadership and Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration locked in debate over new masking and social distancing requirements for the chamber.

Earlier in the day, the Assembly announced a COVID-19 mitigation plan that requires people to wear masks in the Assembly chambers at the Loussac Library. The plan also limits the number of people allowed in the chamber to 125. The Assembly voted 8 to 3 to approve the plan during the meeting. 

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But Assembly chair Suzanne LaFrance alleged during the meeting that Municipal Manager Amy Demboski had ordered security guards not to enforce the masking and capacity rules. 

Demboski denied the claim.

“At no time have I commented or said that the Assembly COVID policy wasn’t allowed. But what I did say was the Department of Law indicated to me that policy does not trump law. The Assembly should follow the law they passed,” she said.

The law she was referring to is the emergency mask mandate passed by the Assembly two weeks ago, which requires mask wearing in indoor public places and communal spaces. The emergency mandate contains many exemptions that are not in the Assembly chambers mitigation plan, including one for people with a physical or mental disability that makes wearing a mask uncomfortable. 

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Several members in the audience at Wednesday’s Assembly meeting ignored the Assembly’s rules and did not wear masks. Demboski, who’s exempt under the emergency mask mandate because she’s a member of the mayor’s administration, was also unmasked. She contracted COVID-19 earlier this month. Mayor Bronson did not attend the meeting in person, as he is isolating because of a COVID exposure from Community Development Authority Executive Director Mike Robbins. Assembly member Jamie Allard said she had a disability that prohibited her from wearing a mask.

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Bronson did weigh in on Facebook, asking the Assembly to “follow your ordinance and exemptions that you wrote.”

“By not allowing members of the public into the Assembly Chambers despite having exemptions that are listed in the ordinance you wrote and passed, you are trying to trump the ordinance,” he wrote.

After the Assembly approved the mitigation rules, Assembly vice chair Chris Constant asked Demboski if she would commit to enforcing the plan. She didn’t directly answer the question, instead saying that the administration would follow the emergency mask mandate. 

Constant then moved to adjourn the meeting, which the Assembly voted in favor of, roughly 80 minutes in. 

RELATED: Bronson administration launches online form to report Anchorage mask mandate violations

After the meeting, Constant described the lack of commitment from Demboski as the latest move from the mayor’s office to undermine the Assembly’s authority over its chamber. 

“And so, when they are letting people in outside of the municipal Assembly’s policies, when they are trying to shut down the cameras so that the public can’t see the meetings, when they’re telling security to go home during contentious meetings,  they are, in fact, determining the time, place and manner to which the Assembly can meet,” he said.

Constant says he believes the mayor’s office could be opening itself up to legal challenges. 

The Assembly will gather Thursday at 5 p.m. to continue the meeting. 

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Wesley Early covers municipal politics and Anchorage life for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org.

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