Starting Monday, COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings and businesses in the Municipality of Anchorage will become recommendations instead.
In a sweeping change to the city’s pandemic response, the Anchorage Assembly revoked several key components of its wide-ranging Emergency Order 20 in a unanimous vote Tuesday night.
Among them: gathering restrictions, social distancing requirements and other pandemic rules for businesses, entertainment facilities, sports, child care and hotels. The changes take effect Monday, May 3.
The city’s mask mandate, a separate emergency order, will remain in effect. After passing the resolution revising the emergency order Tuesday, Assembly members voted to make the revoked requirements into recommendations.
The major changes to COVID-19 requirements affect businesses in all sectors. Still, the city is recommending that businesses and individuals voluntarily continue to follow the health recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the health precautions outlined in EO-20.
“Really, the purpose of this is to send a message to the community that we recognize it’s time to do what we’ve heard from a number of people, which is trust the people to do the right thing,” Assembly member Christopher Constant said.
Constant sponsored the motion to revoke the gathering limitations and business requirements. Reported virus-related deaths in the city have decreased since winter, he said.
He noted that the emergency declaration is still in place and that the mayor can tighten restrictions through another emergency order if hospitalizations or deaths dramatically increase.
“This is a practical test on this system to see if we’re ready, and I believe that we are,” Constant said.
Still, Anchorage Health Department director Heather Harris told the Assembly that the department prefers that the health recommendations in the emergency order remain requirements.
“I’ve seen just a great reduction and a lack of compliance when these types of recommendations or orders are turned into advisories, which has a dramatic impact on our overall success of the community,” Harris said.
Anchorage officials had previously said that the emergency order would become advisory instead of mandatory once 70% of the municipality’s eligible population was fully vaccinated. As of Tuesday, less than 50% of eligible Anchorage residents were fully vaccinated, according to the city’s vaccine dashboard.
“It feels like we’re getting quite close to a space of reaching our goal of a 70% vaccination rate, and our case counts, our case rates are a bit lower right now,” Harris said. “We’re concerned that this is going to increase those rates.”
Major changes include:
• The 6-foot social distance requirement in businesses becomes advisory. That means businesses such as restaurants, bars, theaters and others that serve the public in person are no longer required to keep 6 feet of physical distance between groups of customers.
• Bars and restaurants will no longer be limited to providing only seated table service. Limitations on indoor dancing will be advisory, as well as limitations on live performances.
• At gyms and fitness centers, the 6-foot social distancing requirement becomes advisory.
• Indoor gathering limitations will become advisory. Currently, indoor gatherings with food and drink will are limited to 25 people, while indoor gatherings without food and drink are limited to 35 people.
• Limitations on spectators at sporting events will be advisory.
• Advance COVID-19 testing for certain types of indoor sports competitions will be recommended instead of required.
• Screening children and staff at child care facilities for COVID-19 symptoms will now be recommended instead of required.
Municipal attorney Kate Vogel said that businesses will still have the right to implement their own precautions.
“Nothing about this, of course, changes the ability of business or a restaurant or event planner to impose the limitations that they believe are right for their particular business,” Vogel said.
It also does not change restrictions on schools, which had already been exempted from gathering restrictions, she said.
The municipality’s average case rate per capita over the past two weeks, at 16.46 cases per 100,000 as of Tuesday, places it in the highest alert level but well behind other regions of the state experiencing a recent uptick in cases, including the Fairbanks North Star Borough (41.54 cases per 100,000) and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough (38.74 cases per 100,000).
The changes to Anchorage’s COVID-19 policies come about two weeks ahead of a runoff in the city’s race for mayor, in which Assembly member Forrest Dunbar is a candidate. The city’s pandemic response has been a focal point — and a point of division — in the election.
Some residents in the city have pushed back against the emergency orders, at times protesting outside Assembly chambers. Vocal critics of the city’s pandemic response, including Dunbar’s opponent, have said that the orders harmed the economy and infringe on the rights of residents.
Local economists, however, have said that much of the economic damage is caused by the pandemic itself, not by restrictions.
The mayor had previously eased gathering restrictions, removing all requirements for outdoor gatherings, early in April with the introduction of EO-20.
The mayor is expected to announce changes to the mask mandate to better align it with the CDC’s recent relaxation of recommendations for wearing masks during outdoor activities, Constant said.
Pieces of the emergency order that will still be in effect include:
• Employers are required to notify employees in the event of probable exposure to COVID-19.
• It will also still require anyone who is likely contagious with the virus, including those who have symptoms, who have tested positive or who are close contacts of someone who tested positive, to isolate at home.