Extensive public testimony expected as Anchorage Assembly weighs mask requirement

·5 min read

Sep. 28—The Anchorage Assembly is considering an ordinance that would require all residents, regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status, to wear masks indoors in public spaces and outdoors at large, crowded public events as a way to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

The Assembly is scheduled to take up the ordinance for a public hearing and possible vote at its Tuesday evening meeting — a meeting that Assembly leaders say could stretch over several days, as they expect to be inundated with public testimony over the issue.

Alaska is seeing its worst surge of the COVID-19 pandemic yet, currently holding the highest case rate per capita in the nation. Alaska last week activated crisis standards of care for hospitals statewide. The ordinance cites surging COVID-19 cases, the overburdened hospitals and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that all people should wear masks indoors in public spaces with high transmission rates. It also cites the CDC in saying that beyond vaccinations, masks are a "proven effective" strategy to slow the transmission of COVID-19.

Mayor Dave Bronson, a staunch opponent of COVID-19 mandates, has called the proposed mask ordinance "heavy-handed" and "just the latest example of how this Assembly believes it must force people into submission through fear and government sanctions."

Assembly members have said they don't expect Bronson would enforce a mask requirement.

This week, the ordinance's sponsors, Assembly members Meg Zaletel and Pete Petersen, put forward a new version that specifies how it can be enforced. It includes a private enforcement action, in which a resident could submit a written complaint to a city administrative hearings officer.

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Private enforcement action is a way for residents to seek enforcement when the mayor does not implement it, Zaletel said.

"It is my intent for there to be a private enforcement option, because if the mayor's office will not implement a mask mandate, I want there to be a tool for residents to utilize to seek enforcement of the mask mandate," Zaletel said. "We can create the tools but it is up to the mayor to implement them."

Under the ordinance, businesses and building owners would be required to deny entry to anyone not wearing a mask. It would also apply in municipal buildings. However, there are several exceptions — masks would not be required for children ages 5 and under, and people who can't wear a mask because of a physical or mental disability would not be required to wear one. Those who don't comply with the ordinance may be subject to fines.

Bronson's supporters, such as Assembly member Jamie Allard, have called on the public to show up and testify against a mask mandate.

In a post to her Facebook page, Allard shared an email she sent in reply to a constituent urging her to support a mask mandate, as well as a vaccine mandate.

"I will NEVER vote or mandate for anyone to wear a mask or mandate injecting a human with anything against their will," Allard wrote in the email. "Absolutely violates human rights! Insane!"

Other residents and medical professionals have pleaded for city leaders to take action to quell the surge in cases. During an Assembly meeting earlier this month, Anchorage medical professionals told city leaders they are rationing care under crisis standards at Providence Alaska Medical Center, called on them for help and asked members of the public to get vaccinated. This week, another 300 doctors and medical professionals added their voices to that message, signing a letter in solidarity.

Several other cities in Alaska have implemented various levels of mask mandates. For example, Juneau and Sitka currently require people to wear masks in indoor public settings. Some, like Wasilla, require masks in municipal buildings.

Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said she expects a "tremendous amount of public testimony" on Tuesday, and said the meeting could be extended into other days of the week.

This week Alaska's recent COVID-19 death rate climbed to become one of the highest in the nation. LaFrance said the uptick in deaths has corresponded with an uptick in calls and emails to Assembly members asking them to take action.

[As Alaska hospitals report severe strain, Anchorage Mayor Bronson blasts their COVID-19 vaccine requirements]

Several Assembly members have said that if the ordinance passes, Bronson will likely veto it. In an interview last week, Bronson declined to answer a question about whether or not he would.

To override a veto, the Assembly would need a supermajority of eight votes.

Zaletel said she believes many of her fellow Assembly members will vote in favor of the mask ordinance. The Assembly has recently passed resolutions calling on the mayor to take action such as requiring masks in city buildings and encouraging vaccinations.

"I think my colleagues are mindful, have gone through this process of asking the mayor twice to do something, have seen inaction, and have heard loud and clear from the health care industry that something needs to be done. And this is one of those steps," Zaletel said.

As written, the ordinance would go into effect immediately and expire Dec. 31. It would also fall out of effect if the city's COVID-19 risk level falls below the substantial or high alert risk level.

Earlier this year when she was acting mayor, Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson implemented emergency orders including a previous mask mandate. She said that previously it was up to the mayor to declare an emergency and issue orders such as a mask mandate, and said that it was then up to city code enforcers to enforce previous mask mandates.

That allowed the mayor to make quick changes in response to a rapidly changing situation. But in this case, the pandemic has dragged on and masks are still needed, she said.

"It is our job to create and pass laws that protect public health and safety," Quinn-Davidson said.

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