Anchorage Assembly looks to change how mask mandates are put in place

The move would not eliminate mask requirements, but alter how they can be changed
Published: Jan. 23, 2021 at 2:28 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Mask mandates remain a hot topic of discussion for many, and in Anchorage, the debate over who should have the power to change them will soon be put forth in the form of a formal ordinance before the Anchorage Assembly.

Twenty-two days into the current municipal emergency order, which includes a mask mandate, several Assembly members are trying to move the authority of requiring the use of masks from the acting mayor’s hands to their own. According to Assembly Vice Chair John Weddleton, the purpose of such a move would primarily be to return to a more usual process of lawmaking, the same way other laws and ordinances are usually advanced: through a vote of the governing body.

“Right now, wearing a mask is law in Anchorage,” Weddleton said, “but there’s a lot of frustration. Some people don’t like masks in general, but the process we’ve gone through since last spring with the mayor issuing emergency orders [regarding mask wearing] is not the normal process.”

With Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson’s emergency powers comes the authority to implement public health measures, including requiring people in Anchorage to wear face coverings in public.

“We know that masks work,” Quinn-Davidson said in an interview Friday. “We know that keeping people masked, distanced, and avoiding places where you can’t be masked or distanced, is how we stop the spread of COVID-19. We’ve known that for a while.”

Quinn-Davidson cited science and empirical data, such as that provided by the Centers for Disease Control and noted in several recent reports, in pointing to masks making a positive difference in slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Along with members Meg Zalatel and Suzanne LaFrance, Weddleton helped craft the ordinance that would move mask requirements to being a decision that is not up to a single individual but instead the decision of the entire Assembly, allowing it to go through the usual steps of other resolutions, ordinances and related amendments.

“Normally, the Assembly body goes through the process of public hearing, amendments, and so on,” Weddleton said. “There’s public input. So what we’re doing here is something that people have asked us to do. They’re saying, get away from this mandate from the mayor, and do it through the normal process.”

Weddleton, however, said he and the other members are balancing the pros and cons of such a change, which for example would make the mask requirements a decision of the entire Assembly body but could slow potential changes in the future.

The Assembly was also the group that granted emergency powers for the mayor in the first place, allowing the individual who holds that position to act as they deem fit.

At the same time, while Quinn-Davidson said she works closely with the Assembly, she said she doesn’t feel the ordinance format is the best way to move forward.

“I don’t think that’s the most appropriate way to handle it,” she said. “Our charter, which is like our Constitution, has the Assembly give emergency powers to the mayor, who then implements emergency orders. And so that’s the way we’ve been doing it.

“We know it’s the right thing to do,” she added, referring to requiring masks in public, “and we know the public generally supports these scientific actions.”

Weddleton said he’s “ambivalent” about the ordinance itself but – like his counterparts – is considering all options.

”I’m not 100 percent sure this is the way to go, but there are benefits,” he said. “It would make this a thorough and deliberative process, where people have input, not directly from the mayor. But is this a case where the mayor should be in charge? That could be.”

Along with the mask mandate ordinance – the full text of which is available here, on the Municipality of Anchorage website – several other ordinances aimed at the emergency orders are also on the agenda for the next regular Assembly meeting on Jan. 26.

Among those are an ordinance that would temporarily fill Quinn-Davidson’s Assembly seat while she serves as acting mayor, and a number of different bond packages. Public hearings are expected on those that same evening.

Ordinances looking to replace orders allowing for curbside pickup of alcohol and marijuana, the suspension of the plastic bag ban, and the expansion of alcohol services are set to be introduced for public comment at a later meeting.

Separately, though related to the acting mayor’s emergency powers, Quinn-Davidson said Friday that she also hopes to have an update on the future of the municipality’s current emergency order and mandates as early as next week.

“With all of the numbers we are taking in and the science we are looking at,” she said, “we are really hopeful – given the way that the numbers are going – that we’ll be able to make some adjustments by next week.”

The agenda for Tuesday’s meeting is on the Assembly website. A full list of regular Assembly meetings can be found here.

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