Public testimony on proposed mask ordinance will continue into a 6th day

Next public comment opportunity is this Thursday
Residents prepare to testify on a proposed mask ordinance before the Anchorage Assembly on...
Residents prepare to testify on a proposed mask ordinance before the Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021 in the Loussac Library in Anchorage, Alaska.(Jeremy Kashatok/Alaska's News Source)
Published: Oct. 5, 2021 at 10:24 PM AKDT|Updated: Oct. 6, 2021 at 12:33 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - For a fifth night, residents lined up to weigh in on a proposed ordinance that would require masks within the Municipality of Anchorage on Tuesday night during a continued public hearing in front of the Anchorage Assembly.

The assembly is considering a public health mitigation measure that would require people to wear masks while indoors in public spaces and while outdoors in crowded spaces as the city and state reckon with an ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Alaska’s rate of new cases per capita remains the highest in the nation.

The assembly did not debate or vote on the ordinance Tuesday night. A special meeting has been set for Thursday at 5 p.m. to continue the public hearing.

Assembly members have heard hours of testimony over five nights of an extended public hearing, and as of Monday afternoon had received more than 2,500 emailed comments about the ordinance. Some of the meetings have been marked by outbursts, insults, arrests by the Anchorage police and the use of a Holocaust symbol by people there to oppose the public health measure.

The use of the Star of David, and Mayor Dave Bronson’s initial backing of it, drew condemnation from local Jewish leaders and the Anti-Defamation League. Bronson later apologized and asked people testifying against the proposed ordinance to “find some other symbol” to show their opposition.

In the meetings since, people testifying have continued to invoke elements of the Holocaust, equating the proposed mask requirement to the systematic genocide of millions of Jews and other people under Nazi Germany.

Ahead of Tuesday night’s meeting, several assembly members expressed that the public comment that they’ve heard in the form of shouting, yelling, or offensive language hasn’t impacted the way they will approach thinking about the ordinance.

For example, Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said she still supports a reasonable public health mandate despite people’s behavior at recent meetings.

“The behavior doesn’t impact my assessment of the ordinance in front of us,” she said. “What’s really helpful is to hear the feedback from people about ... amendments and to hear about the specifics.”

Most of the assembly is somewhat happy with the amount the public is engaging, even though some of the public’s messaging has been boisterous and disruptive. Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant feels this way, even though he was the direct target of a homophobic slur by a member of the public at a recent meeting.

“The one great thing about our system is that the people have a right to be heard, and boy are they being heard,” Constant said. “It hasn’t been good or kind or warm or friendly at times, it’s in fact been downright awful at times.”

Constant said he’s still trying to listen through the crowds of people shouting at the assembly and pull good feedback out of the meetings.

Assembly members gave various reasons for potentially supporting the ordinance. LaFrance said the economic impact of Anchorage’s high infection rates could make the city less appealing to travelers.

Assembly member John Weddleton said he’s voted against mask mandates twice now. He probably would be again, he said, except now hospitals are reaching capacity.

“So as long as we had medical capacity, I really did not support doing any of this,” Weddleton said. “Even the business closures and so on. But now we’ve hit that point, and it is real. And for whatever reason people have said ‘well that’s because they didn’t hire right, they didn’t do this.’ Maybe so, but the reality is, is that we are there now.”

Assembly member Crystal Kennedy doesn’t support a mask requirement. However, she does encourage people to wear them in an appropriate setting. She said she’s still trying to listen through to get the actual feedback out of these public testimony hearings.

“If there was somebody that could change my mind, I could certainly listen to that, but it’s been very clear from the beginning where things are in terms of a pro stance or an against stance, and I don’t think I’ve changed my mind on that at all,” Kennedy said.

Bronson has come out in public opposition of the proposed mask ordinance, and has said multiple times he will not support requiring masks or vaccines within Anchorage. As mayor, he has the power to veto the ordinance, should it pass. In that case, the assembly would need a supermajority of eight votes to override a mayoral veto.

The assembly continued to hear many of the same points that have been raised earlier during Tuesday night’s public hearing — those opposed to the ordinance see it as government overreach and believe masking should be a personal choice. Some have said they fear requiring masks would turn residents against each other or deepen existing political divides.

As written, the ordinance would require businesses to refuse entry to people not in compliance. However, it does include several exemptions for things like physical activity and mental or physical disabilities that prevent people from wearing a mask. They would also not be required for children under 5.

Assembly member Meg Zaletel, one of the ordinance’s sponsors, has said there are a number of amendments to the measure that will be brought forward.

Those in favor of the mask requirement have spoken about the overwhelmed health care system, Alaska’s high case rate and the need to protect the community as a whole and bring cases down. Supporters say masking is one of the less intrusive mitigation tools, as opposed to requiring vaccines.

Over the weekend, the state enabled crisis standards of care guidelines for 20 hospitals and health care facilities due to a scarcity resources.

During Tuesday’s meeting, while asking a person testifying a question, Weddleton brought up the issue of whether the mask requirement will be effective if a large portion of people choose not to follow it. A consistent line in much of the testimony over the last few meetings has been that people “will not consent” or “will not comply.”

“It assumes that you get broad compliance for it to really be effective,” Weddleton said of the ordinance and masking. “So if it’s somewhat effective, but only half the people do it, have we really done much?”

Tuesday’s public hearing was extended to 11 p.m. to allow for more testimony. On Monday, the assembly had set a special meeting for this Thursday in case they needed more time for public comment. Testimony will resume at 5 p.m. Thursday in the chambers.

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

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