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Outbursts and interruptions pepper hours of testimony on proposed mask ordinance

Anchorage police arrest four for disorderly conduct, trespassing during the meeting
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 10:07 PM AKDT|Updated: Sep. 30, 2021 at 12:23 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Members of the Anchorage Assembly, who are weighing an ordinance that would require mask wearing in the municipality, heard hours of testimony on Wednesday night from residents falling on both sides of the issue. The assembly is considering the mitigation measure as Alaska’s rate of new COVID-19 cases per capita is the highest in the nation.

The public hearing, which took place in the Anchorage Assembly Chambers in the Loussac Library, was continued from Tuesday night’s regular assembly meeting, during which the assembly only opened official testimony on the ordinance about 15 minutes before the meeting was scheduled to end at midnight.

As on Tuesday night, Wednesday’s meeting was marked by interruptions from a boisterous and impatient crowd gathered there to testify. The Anchorage Police Department arrested four people during the meeting — three men and one woman — according to department spokesperson MJ Thim.

Two of the men were arrested for trespassing, Thim said via email, and another for disorderly conduct. The woman was also arrested for disorderly conduct. The man arrested for disorderly conduct also faces a charge of fifth-degree misconduct involving a weapon “because he did not disclose to an officer he had a weapon,” Thim wrote.

One man was escorted out of the meeting after he shouted at the assembly and directed a profane word at Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant, who is gay, that is often used as a derogatory term for gay people. That man was asked by security to leave, but went back into the auditorium. He was was one the men arrested for trespassing.

Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance consistently paused to warn people that their outbursts were disrupting the meeting and that they would be asked to leave if they continued.

The ordinance in question was brought forward by assembly members Meg Zaletel and Pete Petersen. It would require people in Anchorage to wear masks when indoors in public spaces, and when outdoors in crowded public spaces, regardless of whether they are already vaccinated against COVID-19. It includes several exceptions — it doesn’t require masks for children younger than 5, for people playing sports or for people with mental or physical disabilities that would prevent them from wearing one.

The measure would take effect immediately it if was approved and would expire on Dec. 31. It would also fall out of effect if the municipality fell below the high alert level when it comes to transmission of COVID-19.

The ordinance would also require Anchorage businesses to deny entry to people who were not in compliance with the mask requirement.

The ordinance was amended on Tuesday to include language that would provide for enforcement, including fines for violations. However, Zaletel told Alaska’s News Source that she planned to remove language that would have included a private enforcement provision that was added to the ordinance.

“It is removed because most residents will follow the law and that will be effective in bringing COVID cases down,” Zaletel said via text. “And more importantly, it is fully expected that the Administration in its role as the executive branch will implement and enforce all validly passed ordinances by Assembly, the Municipality’s legislative branch.”

As of noon on Wednesday, the city had received more than 1,800 emailed comments about the ordinance, according to an email from Constant. Of the people who testified on Wednesday, the majority of people who commented in person were against the proposed ordinance. The majority of people who called in to testify over the phone were in favor of it.

People commenting against the proposed mask mandate said it will drive residents further apart. They said the choice should be up to them and equated it to personal health choice.

“You guys talk about a slippery slope — this is it,” one commenter said. “First it’s a mask mandate, then it’s a vaccine mandate, then it’s a, ‘you need this to have a job.’”

Some of those commenting in favor of the ordinance said it’s about protecting the community as a whole and protecting more vulnerable community members. Others in favor of the ordinance said that simply encouraging people to follow mitigation measures is not working.

One commenter said a mask requirement would be the least intrusive or disruptive mitigation measure for the city to enact, and called it “low hanging fruit.”

“I think in the entire basket of options that you have, this is the — it would be the least intrusive,” he said in response to a question from assembly member Jamie Allard. “It would cause the least inconvenience to the public, verses closing businesses or requiring, you know, vaccine passports or something like that. It really is the easiest of all the options in my opinion.”

The assembly is weighing this decision while Alaska’s COVID-19 case rate remains the highest in the nation. State health officials including the State Epidemiologist said Wednesday that Alaska’s new cases are continuing to go up.

“We are definitely in a steep, steep upward trajectory,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin.

A report released in January by the state Section of Epidemiology found that the growth rate of COVID-19 in Anchorage specifically fell during the time that the municipality had enacted emergency orders that required mask wearing and limited capacity in public venues.

“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.”

A handful of people gathered at Wednesday’s meeting also wore makeshift yellow Stars of David as they gave their testimony, and compared the proposed mitigation measure of requiring masks to actions taking during the Holocaust, during which millions of Jewish and other peoples were systematically killed.

Assembly member Forrest Dunbar said at the beginning of the meeting that he had gotten a message from his rabbi about seeing some people wearing a Star of David during Tuesday night’s meeting as well. Dunbar read a portion of that message aloud.

“It was heart wrenching for me when I noticed individuals wearing yellow Stars of David, mimicking my Jewish ancestors who perished during the Holocaust,” Dunbar read from the rabbi’s message. “For myself and most Jews, seeing the yellow Star of David on someone’s chest elicits the same feeling of seeing a swastika on a flag or the SS insignia on a uniform. It is a symbol of hate that reminds us Jews of the terror and horror we suffered.”

Dunbar addressed a few of the people who approached the assembly to give their testimony wearing the symbols, asking if the fact that most Jewish people find the symbol offensive made them reconsider the choice. They responded that their intent was not to offend anyone but to remember the acts of the Holocaust to avoid repeating them in the future, again comparing COVID-19 mitigation measures to those actions.

“I’m not here to offend anybody,” said Christine West, a doctor of business psychology who testified wearing a Star of David. “It’s a pretty star, it’s yellow. We’re shining.”

“But it’s not,” Dunbar responded. “Right? I mean it’s a very specific shaped star, very specific color and it means a very specific thing to Jewish people.”

During the meeting, Mayor Dave Bronson, who occasionally asked follow up questions of people testifying, brought up the use of the Star of David among people in the crowd. He said there’s a formal message of “never again” that came from the Jewish community in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

“And that’s what that star really means is, ‘We will not forget, this will never happen again,’” Bronson said. ”And I think us borrowing that from them is actually a credit to them.”

The meeting was originally scheduled to end at 10 p.m., but the assembly extended the public hearing until midnight to allow for more comments. Assembly members have suggested it could be extended over multiple days due to the high level of public participation.

“We want to hear from as many people as possible this evening,” LaFrance said during the meeting.

Just before it ended Wednesday night, the assembly moved to continue the public hearing into a third day. It will resume in the assembly chambers at 6 p.m. Thursday.

Bronson, who has come out in opposition to this ordinance several times since it was introduced, has the power to veto it. In that case, the assembly would need a supermajority of eight votes to override a veto. The office of the mayor, the city’s executive branch, is responsible for enforcing measures enacted by the assembly, the legislative branch.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information.

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