Divided testimony on proposed mask ordinance continues for a 4th night

Public hearing continued into a 5th day
Members of the Anchorage Assembly hear testimony from residents on a proposed ordinance that...
Members of the Anchorage Assembly hear testimony from residents on a proposed ordinance that would require masks during a Monday, Oct. 4, 2021 public hearing in the Loussac Library in Anchorage, Alaska.(Jeremy Kashatok/Alaska's News Source)
Published: Oct. 4, 2021 at 10:46 PM AKDT|Updated: Oct. 5, 2021 at 2:03 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Scores of residents once again turned up in the Anchorage Assembly Chambers on Monday night for the fourth evening of a public hearing on an ordinance that would require mask wearing within the municipality.

The public hearing resumed Monday after a series of tumultuous meetings last week, one of which saw an openly gay member of the assembly called a homophobic slur by a member of the public and Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson back the use of the Star of David by people there to protest the proposed health measure. He later walked back those comments, which were met with condemnation from local Jewish leaders and the Anti-Defamation League.

At the beginning of Thursday night’s public hearing, Bronson asked people opposed to the proposed mask requirement “to find some other symbol to show your opposition to this ordinance.” At least one person at Monday’s continued hearing wore a makeshift star on his shirt with the words “do not comply” on it.

As written, the proposed ordinance would require people to wear masks while indoors in public spaces, as well as outdoors at crowded events, regardless of whether they are already vaccinated. The ordinance includes several exemptions — it doesn’t require masks for children under 5, and also exempts people who are playing sports, people who are presenting or performing music, those who are incarcerated or in police custody and people “who cannot tolerate a mask due to physical or mental disability.”

Assembly member Meg Zaletel, one of the ordinance’s sponsors, said during the last public hearing on Thursday that there are a dozen or so amendments to this ordinance that will be brought forward. If approved, the measure would take effect immediately and would sunset on Dec. 31.

It would also cease to be in effect if Anchorage fell back below the high risk level when it comes to COVID-19 transmission. The assembly is considering the public health measure as Alaska’s rate of new COVID-19 cases per capita remains the highest in the nation. Over the weekend, the state enabled crisis standards of care guidelines for 20 hospitals and health care facilities in response to a lack of resources and staff.

As of Monday afternoon, the city had received 2,581 comments about the ordinance submitted electronically, according to Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant. Many of the people who have come to speak in person about the measure have been opposed to it.

“I don’t think a lot of people want to come to a large crowded event with a lot of people who are unmasked,” said one commenter who was in favor of the ordinance.

Residents line up to testify on a proposed ordinance that would require masks in the...
Residents line up to testify on a proposed ordinance that would require masks in the Municipality of Anchorage, during a Monday, Oct. 4, 2021 public hearing in the Loussac Library in Anchorage, Alaska.(Jeremy Kashatok/Alaska's News Source)

Bronson has publicly opposed the mask ordinance and has repeatedly said he has no plans to require masks or vaccines within the municipality.

As mayor, he has the power to veto this ordinance, should it pass. In that case, the assembly would need a supermajority of eight votes to override a veto. The power to enforce ordinances passed by the assembly — the legislative branch of city government — lies with the mayor’s office as the executive branch of the city government.

The comments both for and against the ordinance during Monday’s public hearing mirrored many of the points people have brought up on both sides throughout the multi-day meeting. Those opposed to the measure liken it to government overreach and want masking to remain a personal choice. Others say it could deepen divides between Anchorage residents and be bad for businesses trying to recover from the pandemic.

“These past years have been hard,” one man said. “Don’t make it harder.”

Others spoke about medical and other reasons some people find it difficult to wear face masks. When assembly members pointed out that the ordinance has an exemption specifically for people with mental or physical disabilities, some commenters said they aren’t confident that exemption will be recognized or accepted in Anchorage businesses.

One woman spoke on behalf of her son, who has a disability she said prevents him from wearing a mask.

“As I mentioned on Thursday night my son has a medical exemption for mask wearing, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from refusing service to us,” she said.

Those who spoke in favor of the ordinance Monday night talked about the need for masks to be worn in Anchorage to help decrease the spread of COVID-19.

“I see people not protecting he people around them, and that is extremely distressing,” said one man in response to a question from assembly member Jamie Allard.

Allard and assembly member Crystal Kennedy have asked follow up questions of many of the people who came to testify over the last several meetings. Asking additional questions of testifiers and the sheer number of people coming to testify has drawn the public hearing out.

Some commenting in favor of the ordinance Monday spoke to the efficacy of masks and the need to protect the larger community.

“Please pass this mandate with a swift supermajority, because the majority of the Anchorage electorate has the good sensibility not to come into this plagued arena of science-denying bullies unwilling to mildly inconvenience themselves to save their own friends and family,” said Travis Neff.

At one point during Monday’s meeting, in the process of asking a man testifying a question, Bronson said that of the surgeries performed Monday at Providence Alaska Medical Center, only one of the them was an emergency surgery and that the rest were elective.

“So if they’re in a crisis mode of operation ... would they be operating differently?” Bronson said.

Providence Alaska Medical Center has been operating under crisis standards of care since mid-September, which allows hospitals to prioritize treatment and resources, when necessary, for patients who stand the best chance at benefitting from them.

Later in the meeting, assembly member John Weddleton asked a hospitalist from Alaska Native Medical Center who was giving testimony whether the idea that the number of elective surgeries being performed is an indication of whether a hospital is overloaded was accurate.

“When you think about elective surgery, so it may be an outpatient surgery that is not going to require a hospital bed,” said Stacey Maddox, the hospitalist. “Those are the surgeries that — from my understanding, I’m not a surgeon — are continuing. So things like full mouth restoration from the dentist, those things are continuing. Things like having a brain tumor removed where the patient will likely go to the ICU afterwards, those things cannot continue.”

In an email Tuesday, Providence spokesperson Mikal Canfield explained how the facility may continue to provide non-emergency surgeries while still operating under a state of crisis care.

“In response to an increase in hospital census and continued staffing challenges, Providence Alaska Medical Center sometimes postpones elective surgeries that require hospitalization,” he wrote. “... Providence Alaska Medical Center continues to provide surgeries that can be done on an outpatient basis (do not require hospitalization). These procedures do not impact bed availability at the hospital.”

Some examples of elective procedures that don’t require a hospital stay, Canfield said, are things like kidney stone removal, hernia repair or a mastectomy. The hospital evaluates its elective surgery schedule on a daily basis, he wrote.

Canfield also confirmed that, under crisis standards of care, in some cases care rationing has occurred at Providence.

“‘Rationing’ may mean different things to different people,” he wrote. “Under ‘crisis standards of care,’ when demands exceed available capacity, it can involve triaging patients differently than in usual circumstances. For example, by allocating limited resources for those who will most benefit instead of those who are the sickest. Under the definition provided here, yes — ‘rationing’ care has occurred within the crisis standards of care.”

During Monday’s meeting, Weddleton also asked Maddox what indications she had that Alaska Native Medical Center is actually overwhelmed right now.

“Typically I see 12-15 patients per day,” she said. “Since this most recent surge we’re seeing, at minimum, 17 patients going into 20, and that doesn’t sound like a lot but that is a lot for a hospitalist. I am unfortunately managing patients on the medical floor that prior to COVID would have been in the ICU no question, because the ICU is closed. All of the ICUs are closed in Anchorage. I have managed patients that I normally would have on the floor in the emergency department because there were no beds because they were filled with COVID patients.”

Members of the assembly voted to extend the meeting to 11 p.m. while they worked on a way to separate the public hearing from other time sensitive measures that passed during Tuesday night’s regular meeting. Constant explained those measures could not take effect until the meeting officially adjourned as they were still subject to reconsideration. In the end, the assembly solved the issue by making a motion to reconsider those time sensitive items and voting it down.

The assembly also continued the public hearing to 5 p.m. on Tuesday.

This article has been updated with additional information.

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