The city of Anchorage on Friday announced the removal of mask mandate exemptions, ordered new limits on gathering sizes and said the city will be stepping up enforcement, as COVID-19 case rates continued to increase at a rate that alarmed public health officials.
Acting Anchorage Mayor Quinn-Davidson said the new restrictions — which cap indoor gatherings without food or drink at 15 people rather than 30, with some exceptions for places like churches, and lower the required mask-wearing age to children over 5 — are aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19. That’s so Anchorage residents are more comfortable going back to stores, restaurants and other businesses like they normally would, she said.
“When COVID numbers are high, people don’t want to get sick, and they don’t want to get their loved ones sick, so they start pulling back from supporting the local economy," she said at a Friday community briefing. "We must get our COVID numbers under control now to save lives and support our businesses.”
Around the same time the city of Anchorage was announcing the changes, the state announced 504 new cases of COVID-19, the second-highest single-day count to date, with more than half being reported in Anchorage. For weeks, single-day counts have ranged from 300 to 500, steadily increasing over time.
Public health officials fear the rise in cases could put local hospital capacity past the brink, leading to unnecessary deaths. Even with the ability to stand up emergency medical shelters in arenas, they fear they will lack staffing to operate them.
As Quinn-Davidson finished up her second week as acting mayor, the Friday changes were the first mandates issued under her COVID-19-related emergency powers.
Still, the new changes fall short of Anchorage Health Department recommendations. In an Oct. 30 weekly report, the department said “due to the consistent increase of COVID-19, a version of a hunker down would be required to drive widespread transmission down.” The changes announced by Quinn-Davidson on Friday were the minimum recommendations from the health department.
However, on Friday, Anchorage Health Department Director Heather Harris endorsed the changes, saying she hoped the community steps up so Anchorage doesn’t reach a “hunker down” level.
Anchorage Epidemiologist Janet Johnston said officials should get a sense of whether the changes are working over the next two weeks.
“In another week, week-and-a-half, we’ll be looking at those numbers and potentially making some tough decisions,” Quinn-Davidson said. “We hope we don’t have to. We hope Alaskans will step up.”
Fewer mask mandate exemptions, tighter limits on gatherings
Quinn-Davidson announced that several exemptions from Anchorage’s mask mandate, or Emergency Order 13, are being removed starting Monday at 8 a.m.
[Above: City briefing on Friday with Acting Anchorage Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson and others]
The mandate will now affect children over 5 years old and people exercising indoors. Masks are recommended, but not required, for children ages 2 to 5.
People who cannot tolerate wearing a face mask for medical or other reasons will now be required to wear a face shield, unless it is impossible. For everyone else, face shields are not a permitted replacement for a face mask.
People who cannot work safely with a mask on, such as drivers wearing glasses that could fog up, can wear a face shield.
Businesses can require customers wear masks, and can find other ways to accommodate people wearing face shields, such as curbside service.
The original mandate, which went into effect June 29, had a number of exemptions, including children under 12 who weren’t under parent supervision, people who were exercising and felt wearing a mask interfered with their breathing and those who could not tolerate it for medical or disability reasons.
The city also tightened the restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings. A gathering is defined as a meeting or event that brings people from multiple households together in a single space, such as an auditorium, stadium, conference room or meeting hall. People attending gatherings must wear masks.
Indoor gatherings, currently capped at 30 people, will be limited to 10 people if there is food or drink being consumed and 15 people without food and drink.
Outdoor gatherings, currently limited to 50 people with food and drink and 100 without, will be limited to 20 people with food and drink and 30 people without.
Schools will be limited to 50% of their fire code capacity. Churches and places where there is political expression are limited to 50% of their fire code capacity.
Quinn-Davidson said she worked with Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop in deciding to limit school capacity.
Anchorage School District spokesman Alan Brown said the district is confident the new restrictions will not interfere with the district’s plans to begin returning some Anchorage students to school on Nov. 16.
“ASD fully understands the intent of these new Municipal mandates and will be able to operate within the parameters, while still providing the best possible in-person education for our youngest students,” Brown said in an email.
Tom Hennessy, an epidemiologist at University of Alaska Anchorage, said smaller gatherings are safer, though all come with risk.
City takes steps to increase enforcement, but also asks for individual action
The municipality’s mask mandate, as well as the original “hunker down” in the spring and then a four-week bar and restaurant closure in August, proved controversial. Those mandates were imposed by then-mayor Ethan Berkowitz, and galvanized a vocal and persistent opposition that frequently protested at Assembly meetings.
There was a lull in cases of the virus after the August shutdown, but they have been increasing since, and city leaders have declined to shut the hospitality sector down a third time despite community spread of COVID-19 being more rampant than ever.
Quinn-Davidson said she hopes to slow the virus without using such blunt measures.
Hennessy said despite rising case numbers, individual behavior like better mask-wearing and social distancing should be enough to slow the spread. Hennessy said the city needs a decline of 15% in the transmission rate.
“We would get transmission down in Anchorage to the point where case numbers would shrink on a daily basis,” he said.
Chris Anderson, president of Glacier Brewhouse and ORSO, also spoke during Friday’s community briefing. He said the restaurant business has been devastated by the pandemic.
Anderson pleaded with the public to follow the mandates, saying people need to wear masks, wash their hands and stay distant.
“I can’t believe that we can’t, as Alaskans, do that,” he said.
Anderson said the community needs to get the virus under control this winter so tourists can return to the state and bolster the economy in the summer. Otherwise, businesses and restaurants will close.
“If you can’t wear a mask, and you don’t like to social distance and all these mandates just are not a good idea for you, that’s OK. Just stay home,” Anderson said. “That’s a good place for you to be. When this is all over, we welcome you with open arms back into our businesses.”
Quinn-Davidson said businesses have been calling on the city to step up enforcement. She said the city will hire three new code enforcement officers and will be more responsive to complaints going forward, and will also do spot checks throughout the city. She said the city will also step in and help businesses remove someone refusing to put a mask on in a business.
Municipal Attorney Kate Vogel said the city has a range of fines it can impose on violators of the mask mandate, starting at $50.
Robert Brewster, owner of The Alaska Club, said the majority of people at his Anchorage fitness centers wear a mask, but it is a constant challenge as a business owner to make sure everyone is wearing one, and wearing it correctly. He said more enforcement is helpful to businesses.
“Although I personally think less enforcement, or government in general, is a good thing, this is one circumstance where it’s not,” Brewster said.
Daily News reporter Emily Goodykoontz contributed.
[Read the city orders below]