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Following volatile meeting, third night of testimony on mask ordinance sees calls for civility

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. 30, 2021 at 11:48 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - After a tumultuous public hearing interspersed with arrests, people donning a Holocaust symbol to protest a proposed public health measure and a member of the public using a homophobic slur, the third night of testimony on an ordinance that would require masks in the Municipality of Anchorage was quieter by comparison. Still, dozens of residents filed into the Anchorage Assembly Chambers to emphatically oppose the measure.

The Anchorage Assembly is considering an ordinance that would require people to wear masks indoors in public spaces and outdoors in crowded areas, as a means of trying to slow the transmission of COVID-19. The state’s rate of new cases per capita is the highest in the nation.

The assembly did not debate or vote on the ordinance Thursday night. The public hearing has been continued into a fourth day and will resume at 5 p.m. on Monday in the assembly chambers.

Wednesday’s meeting was interrupted or paused several times as a tense, boisterous crowd cheered, booed and shouted at members of the assembly. Four people were arrested by the Anchorage Police Department, and several people wore makeshift Stars of David while they testified, equating the proposed mask requirement to actions taken during the Holocaust, during which millions of Jewish people were systematically killed.

One of the men who was later arrested for trespassing called Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant, who is gay, a profane word often used as a derogatory way to refer to gay people.

Mayor Dave Bronson initially backed the use of the Star of David by those in opposition to the mask measure, but later walked back his comments. A local Jewish leader decried the use of the Holocaust symbol to be compared to COVID-19 mitigation measures and the Anti-Defamation League condemned Bronson’s comments.

Thursday night’s meeting started out with calls from some assembly members to keep the testimony civil, and an apology from Bronson. He repeated the statement sent out earlier Thursday by his office, in which he said he “should have chosen my words more carefully.”

“I want to apologize for any perception that my statements support or compare what happened to the Jewish people in Nazi Germany,” he said in the statement.

Bronson said he understands the anger some people are feeling about the proposed mask ordinance, “and I agree with that anger.”

“I ask our citizens to be sensitive and understanding about the impact that the wearing of the yellow Star of David has on many members of our Jewish community,” Bronson said. “I encourage you to find some other symbol to show your opposition to this ordinance.”

At Thursday’s meeting, Bronson also apologized directly to Constant.

“I apologize I didn’t stand up and speak in your defense,” he said.

Bronson said he was caught off guard by the profanity and that the man was taken out of the room before Bronson could gather his thoughts.

“What was said was intolerable and it shouldn’t have been said,” Bronson said.

Constant addressed Wednesday’s night’s incident, saying he’s spent enough time in public meetings that it’s something he expected from the man who used the derogatory term.

“The part that in fact shocked me to silence was when roughly 200 people cheered zealously,” Constant said. “That was the part that zinged me and really took my breath away for a minute.”

“Maybe that should be a reflection,” one man said from the audience, interrupting Constant. Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance warned the man that he would be asked to leave if there was another outburst.

“The thing, though, that I will take away is not the hate that continues now, clearly, to be a threat in this room,” Constant said. “But instead what I will take with me is that fact that for hours last night and all day today members of this community, hundreds, reached out to me and said, I may not agree with you on these issues, but I agree that you have a right to be here and respected in this process, that you are a valued member of our community just like every other LGBTQ person in this town.”

“So for my part I think when I hear the statement as I heard from Mr. Perez-Verdia and Mr. Weddleton that this isn’t who we are — this is who we are,” he continued. “But what we have to do is figure out how, together, we can be better.”

Throughout Thursday night’s meeting, public testimony continued mostly uninterrupted by members of the audience, though the assembly at several points took time to deal with motions made around the issue of asking members of the public follow up questions after their testimony.

The majority of comments received so far in person and over the phone have opposed the ordinance, but several people have testified that they want the assembly to enact it. The assembly had also received close to 2,000 emailed comments about it by Wednesday afternoon.

If passed, the ordinance would take effect immediately and would sunset on Dec. 31, or if the municipality fell out of the high alert level for COVID-19 transmission. It would require businesses to deny entry to people not in compliance, but also provides for several exceptions. For example, children under age 5 would not be required to wear masks, nor would people playing sports or those with mental or physical disabilities that prevent them from wearing one.

Many of those who came to give input on Thursday repeated similar concerns to people who have voiced opposition in the past — concerns about government overreach, a wish for masking to remain a personal choice and a fear that the ordinance would turn residents against each other.

Those in favor of the measure say it’s about protecting the community as a whole and working to get COVID-19 numbers down in Anchorage. A report by the state Section of Epidemiology released in January found that the growth rate of COVID-19 in Anchorage fell during the time that the municipality had enacted emergency orders that required mask wearing and limited capacity in public venues.

The assembly went through extensive debate trying to settle on a day to continue the public hearing to. Some members wanted to continue the meeting the next day, on Friday, and into the weekend. Others wanted to have a few days off to give the assembly and public a break before resuming on Monday. Assembly members Jamie Allard and Crystal Kennedy also mentioned personal conflicts with a Friday or Saturday meeting.

Municipal Manager Amy Demboski said that if the meeting was continued to Saturday, the administration would choose not to incur overtime for members of the Anchorage Fire Department, who she said are responsible for the meetings being streamed and broadcast to the public. Anchorage Police Chief Ken McCoy also said a Saturday meeting would make it difficult to appropriately staff the meeting with police officers.

After several rounds of motions and amendments, the assembly finally settled on continuing the meeting to 5 p.m. on Monday.

Assembly member Meg Zaletel mentioned during Thursday’s meeting that there are a dozen or so amendments that will be proposed to the ordinance.

As mayor, Bronson has the power to veto the ordinance if it passes. In that case, the assembly would need a supermajority of eight votes to override that veto.

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