Anchorage Assembly continues public hearing on mask ordinance into second day

Members of the public fill the Anchorage Assembly Chambers on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021 in...
Members of the public fill the Anchorage Assembly Chambers on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021 in Anchorage, Alaska as the assembly weighed an ordinance that would require masking within the municipality.(Robert McNeily/Alaska's News Source)
Published: Sep. 29, 2021 at 7:06 AM AKDT|Updated: Sep. 29, 2021 at 10:46 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - In a meeting peppered with outbursts and interruptions, members of the Anchorage Assembly continued into a second day a public hearing about an ordinance that would require masks to be worn indoors and outdoors in public within the municipality.

Assembly members decided late Tuesday night to continue public comment at 6 p.m. Wednesday. The measure is an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Anchorage as the state of Alaska is in the midst of a surge and currently has the highest rate of new cases per capita in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As written, the ordinance would require people in the Municipality of Anchorage to wear masks while in indoor public spaces, and when outdoors in crowded public spaces, regardless of whether there are already vaccinated against COVID-19 or not. The ordinance provides for several exceptions; for example, it doesn’t require masks for children younger than 5, for people actively playing sports or for people with mental or physical disabilities that would prevent them from wearing one.

If approved, the ordinance would take effect immediately and would expire on Dec. 31. It would also no longer be in effect if the municipality fell below the high alert level for the spread of COVID-19.

The ordinance was amended ahead of Tuesday’s assembly meeting to include language that would provide for enforcement, including fines for violations of the code.

The ordinance would also require that businesses deny entry to people who were not in compliance.

The assembly chambers in the Loussac Library were filled Tuesday night with people who lined up to speak to the ordinance — most who testified were against the measure, but some were in favor of it. The meeting was interrupted and on several occasions paused when members of the audience broke out into applause, cheers or boos, sometimes shouting at the assembly members. Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance asked the audience several times to refrain from interrupting, and a handful of times announced the assembly would be taking a recess when the shouting grew louder in response.

She emphasized that everyone would get their turn to speak on the mask ordinance, and that the assembly would continue the public hearing into a second or multiple days if necessary.

“Our intent… is to hear from everybody,” LaFrance said. “We’ll extend to Wednesday and Thursday as we have done in the past for items that are of particular interest to the public.”

In his opening mayoral comments, which he also posted to his official Facebook page, Mayor Dave Bronson spoke against the ordinance, calling it bad policy and saying it is “based on inconclusive science.”

“I am not anti-masking; I am simply pro-liberty” Bronson wrote. “I am committed to protecting the physical and mental health of our residents, but I am also committed to protecting their freedom.”

After an initial public comment period at the beginning of the meeting during which some people spoke about masking, the assembly did not start taking public comments about the mask ordinance until about 11:45 p.m., just 15 minutes before the meeting was set to adjourn at midnight.

Some of the people who spoke in opposition to the mask ordinance on Tuesday night expressed concerns about potential infringement on their rights or freedoms. Some of them said they will not comply if the ordinance is passed.

As the assembly took comment from a handful of people before the meeting adjourned, they were interrupted by cheers and shouts. Assembly member Jamie Allard raised her voice and told people to let her finish explaining that everyone would get a chance to speak before the public hearing is over.

“I will rescind the motion, I just need folks to let the people testify,” said Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant after he initially made a motion to adjourn the meeting a few minutes early. “If we can’t hear you, then what’s the point of this?”

Part of the ordinance text refers to a report released by the state Section of Epidemiology under the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Published in January, the report evaluated the emergency public health orders that had been active in Anchorage during the summer of 2020, and whether they had affected the spread of COVID-19 during that time.

The municipality’s former mask order was implemented on June 29, and the city also implemented capacity limitations for public venues like bars and restaurants in July 2020 and an order that closed indoor public venues in early August 2020. According to the report, the implementation of the three emergency orders was “followed by a substantial decline in COVID-19 transmission and rates.”

“The (municipality’s) mask order (EO 13) in late June was followed by a decrease in the growth rate of the COVID-19 epidemic in Anchorage,” the report found. “The Emergency Orders that limited and then closed public venues in late July and early August were followed by an even greater drop in transmission and the epidemic in Anchorage began to decline.”

Dr. Kristen Solana Walkinshaw, chief of staff at Providence Alaska Medical Center, provided the assembly with an update of operations at the hospital, where crisis standards of care are currently being implemented. Assembly member Forrest Dunbar brought up that a number of people have asserted the staffing shortages affecting Alaska hospitals are due to vaccine mandates that several large facilities, including Providence, have enacted.

It’s also a claim Bronson made in his comments.

“The hospital’s leadership has only compounded the problem by mandating a vaccine that, by some estimates, 20% of its nursing staff will refuse and, as a result, will be fired,” Bronson wrote in his post.

“Is that the case to your knowledge?” Dunbar asked during the meeting.

“Not to my knowledge and currently we do not have people leaving because of vaccine mandate(s),” Solana Walkinshaw said.

A spokesperson for Providence had also previously told Alaska’s News Source that the hospital was not aware of any resignations due to the vaccine policy. Employees at Providence are required to be fully vaccinated or have an approved medical or religious exemption by Oct. 18.

As the mayor, Bronson has the power to veto this ordinance, should it pass at the assembly level. In that case, the assembly would need a supermajority of eight votes to override a mayoral veto. Even then, it is up to the mayor’s office, the city’s executive branch, to enforce measures passed by the assembly.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct a quote from Anchorage Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant.

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