Frustrated by lost wages, dying businesses and immense lifestyle changes spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of people gathered Wednesday to protest ongoing government mandates that closed businesses and called for people to stay home in order to curb the spread of the virus.
“Alaskans are ready to get back to work,” said Kathy Henslee, who attended the protest.
The cars lined up at the Loussac Library parking lot in Midtown and headed for downtown Anchorage, where they planned to drive past Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s office. Many held up signs condemning Berkowitz.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced Tuesday night that restaurants, personal-care services and retail businesses would be allowed to reopen as soon as Friday, while Berkowitz said some businesses in Anchorage may open Monday.
Berkowitz said Wednesday during a public address that the city’s plan to reopen is similar to the state’s. Details about which businesses will be allowed to reopen will be released Friday, Berkowitz said.
“What we are doing is driven by data,” he said. “All the data that we have collected shows that we are in the right place, or moving toward the right place, in so many areas."
Alaska has had nine COVID-19-related deaths and 335 confirmed cases among residents as of Wednesday.
Across the country, protests have ignited as tensions rise during the pandemic. In several states, hundreds of people gathered to protest on state capitol steps, many not adhering to social distancing guidelines and not wearing facial coverings recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to curb the spread of the virus.
In Anchorage, many protesters remained in their cars. Few wore masks.
An organizer of the protest said the group wanted to show that they can be respectful, responsible and “abide by common sense” when reopening businesses.
Berkowitz said Wednesday that protesters who want to open Anchorage back up are exercising their First Amendment rights, but city officials are also paying attention to input “from people who want to make sure that we move ahead slowly and deliberately.”
“I sympathize with what they’re trying to do about opening Anchorage, and if that’s their sole goal, I would say we agree on that goal,” Berkowitz said of the protesters. “I just have a disagreement about what the timing is.”
Rose English and her husband, Robert, lined up in the library parking lot Wednesday afternoon among the sea of other protesters in their vehicles. The couple pulled a horse trailer behind their pickup truck.
Rose English teaches horse riding lessons at her business, Rockin’ B Riding, and said she was forced to stop teaching more than a month ago because of COVID-19 mandates. Robert English worked for an oil company and said he was laid off as the industry began to struggle amid the economic turmoil caused by COVID-19.
With both of them out of work, finances have been tight and stress levels have been high.
“We’re going broke,” said Rose English.
The couple is being careful about the virus. “When we go into stores, we wear a mask and we get gloves and we have sanitizer in the truck,” Robert English said. But they aren’t worried about contracting COVID-19 themselves because they do not have any underlying health conditions and believe they would survive the virus.
Rose English said she’s ready to get back to work and believes it would be easy to teach riding lessons while maintaining social distancing. Robert was recently hired for a new job and will start soon, but in the meantime, their bills continue to pile up.
Raquel Osterbauer said she works as an on-call nurse for Alaska Regional Hospital. She generally works one day per week, but hasn’t been working at all since the start of the pandemic because there isn’t a need for additional employees.
Osterbauer said she believes the virus may have been spreading undetected in Anchorage during December and January. (Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, has said that it is “very unlikely” the illness was spreading in Alaska in November and December, months before the first case was confirmed in mid-March.) Osterbauer said that the loss of her income has hurt her family and she is ready to see others who are also struggling be able to return to work.
“People die and I think we have a lot more harm happening with shutting everything down,” she said.
Kathy Henslee said her real estate development business and revenue from vacation rental homes have both taken a hit because of the pandemic. She said she feels it was an overreaction and a government overreach to force businesses to close.
“I’m passionate about our liberty,” she said. “And as American citizens, the ability to make a living for ourselves being taken away in that way makes me want to voice my opinion and be heard. I’m hopeful because I believe in this country and I believe that we will pull out of this and that we’ll prevail, but I think we had a lot of unnecessary pain to go through.”
As the cars rolled down Sixth Avenue, Ruth Kvernplassen paused while walking to watch some of the honking vehicles as they passed City Hall. She wore a blue face covering and put her hands on her hips as a white Chevy Suburban rolled by displaying American flags and signs that read “This sucks” and “Open AK.”
Kvernplassen said she supports the mayor’s phased approach to reopening the city. “I think that it’s divisive and that it’s loud,” she said of the protest. “I think what they’re asking for is too soon.”
Down the street, a counterprotester stood on a corner, extended a middle finger to the circling vehicles and held a sign that said “Ignorance is bliss.”
ADN reporter Marc Lester contributed to this story.
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