The Anchorage Assembly on Friday revoked the city’s mask mandate, effective immediately, just hours after municipal officials initially announced that the mandate would become an advisory next week.
The Assembly’s move — upheld by Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson — dismantles a mask requirement that has been in place since last June and marks the latest major shift in the city’s pandemic response after most restrictions on businesses and gatherings were lifted earlier this month.
During a special meeting Friday afternoon, Assembly member Chris Constant proposed that the Assembly revoke the emergency order, and the move found wide support in an 8-1 vote.
“It’s time to end the mask mandate. It’s time to end it now,” member Kameron Perez-Verdia said.
Earlier in the day on Friday, Quinn-Davidson’s office had announced that the emergency order requiring mask wearing in public spaces would instead become a recommendation starting May 21, in response to federal guidance that says fully vaccinated Americans can safely stop wearing face coverings in most settings, both indoors and out.
City officials had also cited rising vaccinations among residents and decreasing infection counts as part of the reason for the mask order to become advisory.
The Assembly’s vote marks a sudden change from the acting mayor’s plan, speeding up the timeline by a week.
City officials said having the change take effect on May 21 was meant to protect the school district’s largely unvaccinated student population through the end of the academic year. It would also give businesses and organizations time to plan, they said.
“While this changes the timeline, at the end of the day we’re working toward the same result: lifting the citywide masking requirement while recommending that people who are not vaccinated keep wearing masks,” Quinn-Davidson said in an emailed statement after the Assembly’s vote.
Under the city’s plan, unvaccinated individuals will still be “strongly encouraged” to continue masking, but they won’t be required to. City officials said that “a mask mandate applying only to unvaccinated individuals would have presented enforcement challenges and increased the burden on businesses.”
However, businesses may continue to require masks. Additionally, a federal mask mandate that applies to public transportation is still in effect and the CDC still advises that people wear masks while in health care and congregate settings.
“We recognize that lifting the mask mandate, either today or next week, shifts more responsibility to individuals,” Janet Johnston, an epidemiologist with the city health department, said in a statement after the assembly’s move. “With less masking, the COVID-19 risk for unvaccinated individuals will increase.
”We strongly encourage everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated and to continue masking until two weeks after completing the vaccination series. And once you are vaccinated, enjoy being able to go mask-free.”
Municipal attorney Kate Vogel spoke to the Assembly before its vote and said that removing the citywide mandate means that individual corporate policies will be the controlling factor in many settings.
“We’ve got businesses throughout the city, frankly, throughout the country, that are in the process of trying to figure out what to do and what are the rules for their employees,” Vogel said. “Yesterday’s announcement was a little bit unexpected and therefore a lot of our companies, even the national ones, don’t yet know what their internal policy is going to be or their policy for customers.”
Member Meg Zaletel was the only member to vote against the change, and member Forrest Dunbar was not present for the vote.
A few Assembly members also mentioned concerns with immediately revoking the mandate.
Member Pete Petersen noted that there was a recent surge in cases in Fairbanks, stressing the city’s hospital system. Keeping the mandate in place for one more week would allow more time for people to be vaccinated, he said.
“There are lives at stake here,” he said.
Zaletel proposed an amendment to change the effective date to line up with the mayor’s plan, but members voted her amendment down.
Member John Weddleton said he felt that businesses have had plenty of time to plan, and noted that businesses don’t have to change — they can still require masks on their premises.
“I don’t think there’s anything disruptive in taking off a mask. The masks are what are disruptive,” he said. “And then as far as people, businesses having time to plan, there has been plenty of time to plan. We’ve all known this won’t last forever.”
The city had been in a high alert status since nearly a year ago — meaning it was recording more than 10 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people on average over a two-week period — but recently decreased to an intermediate alert, officials wrote.
In Anchorage, 137,278 people — reflecting roughly 60% of residents age 16 and older — have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while about 53% of those 16 and older were considered fully vaccinated by Thursday.
“If going to get a COVID-19 vaccine has been on your to-do list for a while,” Quinn-Davidson said, “now is the moment to cross it off.”