On Tuesday, the Anchorage Assembly requested that Mayor Dave Bronson require masks in city buildings — and the mayor immediately refused.
In an 8-3 vote, the Assembly passed a resolution asking the mayor to require masks in indoor public areas of municipal buildings when Anchorage is in a high alert risk level for COVID-19 transmission, as well as promote other mitigation measures, including vaccinations.
Bronson, in an emailed statement, said he would not institute any mandate and that wearing a mask is a personal choice.
“My administration has been clear since the beginning that we will not mandate masks or vaccines. If someone wants to wear a mask or get a vaccination that’s their personal choice. But we will not violate the privacy and independent healthcare decisions of our citizens in the process,” Bronson said.
Alaska has seen record hospitalizations of people with COVID-19 during the last week and Gov. Mike Dunleavy has urged more Alaskans to get vaccinated.
On Tuesday, Providence Alaska Medical Center announced it is now implementing crisis standards and rationing medical care as COVID-19 patients and staffing issues overwhelm its capacity. About 30 doctors and other health care workers attended Tuesday’s Assembly meeting, some testifying about the situation, urging vaccinations and pleading for the public’s help.
Dr. Michael Savitt, the Anchorage Health Department’s chief medical officer, in testimony to the Assembly before the vote, said the department recommends using a combination of strategies to protect against COVID-19, including wearing masks in indoor public settings, social distancing and washing hands. Vaccines are the best way to prevent infection, he said.
Bronson said his administration is “committed to giving access to Anchorage residents with all the resources and information they need to make informed personal decisions for themselves and their families.”
“While my critics spend more time about how I won’t institute big government mandates, they ignore the fact that my administration has increased COVID-19 testing, vaccinations, and stood up two monoclonal antibody treatment sites,” Bronson said in the emailed statement.
In direct messaging to residents, Bronson has encouraged testing and monoclonal antibody treatment, but has stopped short of encouraging residents to get vaccinated or wear masks, and has so far himself not been vaccinated. During Tuesday’s Assembly meeting, Bronson sat unmasked.
Assembly members Jamie Allard, Crystal Kennedy and John Weddleton voted against the resolution.
While Weddleton said that the worsening pandemic called for action such as a mask mandate, he also called the resolution pointless, saying “we know the mayor is not going to do it.”
“I don’t find it productive,” he said. “... It’s just digging the trough deeper between us.”
Allard and Kennedy have supported much of Bronson’s agenda.
Kennedy mentioned a recent large study in Bangladesh which found that the wearing of surgical masks can limit the spread of the coronavirus, saying that though masks help, their impact is limited.
“We know that it can help reduce, but it does not prevent COVID-19,” Kennedy said. “And that’s probably, I think the biggest hurdle, if you will, that we have to overcome if we’re trying to convince people that a mask mandate will stop COVID. We really don’t have the data that will do that.”
The study’s authors have said it provides conclusive evidence that mask-wearing can have a significant impact on limiting the spread of symptomatic COVID-19.
A state report on Anchorage’s mask mandate and “hunker down” orders last summer also showed that masking, capacity restrictions and gathering limitations helped ease the burden on hospitals and slowed the spread of COVID-19.
The majority of Assembly members and the administration have been at odds over the city’s handling of the pandemic. Bronson during his campaign this spring criticized the city’s previous mask mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions, which most Assembly members had supported, promising that he would not implement any as mayor.
On Tuesday, the Assembly and mayor clashed briefly over COVID-19 safety measures in the meeting chambers.
Before the meeting, Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance had asked members of Bronson’s administration to sit in different seats, allowing Assembly members to spread out and social distance, she said.
“As we’ve done in the past, my intent was to have Assembly members, who are the primary principle participants throughout the meeting, spread out on the upper dais and reduce the administration’s seats and relocate some of the mayor’s executives to accommodate this mitigation measure,” LaFrance said. “However, the administration has explicitly indicated they’re not willing to work with us to space out seating.”
Municipal Manager Amy Demboski later responded to LaFrance’s comments and said Assembly members could have spread out to sit on the lower dais themselves.
“For security reasons for the mayor, we have to maintain secondary egress. So I told the Assembly leadership that was not adequate, nor would that happen,” Demboski said. “It’s inappropriate for the legislative body to manipulate or interfere with the executive branch’s opportunity to participate.”
At the end of the meeting, Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant introduced an ordinance that, if passed, will make the Assembly’s presiding officer the managing authority for meeting premises.
The ordinance aims to clarify a “lack of express authority in Anchorage Municipal Code” regarding the Assembly chair’s power to set make decisions about meeting logistics, settings and operations.
That would specify in code that LaFrance should have the power to implement COVID-19 precautions in Assembly chambers during meetings, such as the spread out seating for members.
The Assembly will hold a public hearing and a possible vote on the item on Sept. 28, Constant said.