As Alaska experiences a COVID-19 rate that’s among the highest in the country and its hospitals reach crisis levels, two Anchorage Assembly members have introduced an ordinance that would require residents to wear masks in indoor public settings and outdoors at large, crowded public events.
Assembly members Meg Zaletel and Pete Petersen are sponsoring the ordinance and introduced it at a special meeting Monday. It cites the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, strained Alaska hospitals and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that all people, regardless of vaccination status, should wear masks indoors in public spaces in places with high transmission.
Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson has staunchly opposed mask mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions. If the ordinance passes, he could veto it. The 11-member Assembly would then need to muster a supermajority of eight votes to override his veto.
Bronson, in an emailed statement Monday, said he opposes the ordinance.
“I believe it is heavy-handed, out of line with the will of the people and businesses of Anchorage, and it serves as just the latest example of how this Assembly believes it must force people into submission through fear and government sanctions,” Bronson said. “If the residents of Anchorage want to wear masks, I strongly encourage them to do so. If a business wants to stop in-person visits, limit capacity or require their patrons wear masks, that is their decision to make. If residents want to socially distance, limit their interactions, and avoid public gatherings, that is well within their rights. These are their choices, and their decisions.”
If passed at the next regular Assembly meeting — there is one scheduled for Sept. 28 — the ordinance would go into effect immediately and expire Dec. 31. It would also fall out of effect if the city’s COVID-19 risk level falls below the substantial or high alert risk level.
COVID-19 cases in Alaska and in Anchorage are surging due to the delta variant, and Alaska last week had the third-highest rate of cases in the nation.
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Amid a flood of COVID-19 patients and short staffing, Alaska’s largest hospital last week declared crisis standards and began rationing care. At an Assembly meeting last week, a large group of health care workers testified, asking city leaders to take action and for residents to get vaccinated.
Hospital officials say they are now forced to make choices on who receives care and who doesn’t, based on a specific formula prioritizing patients most likely to recover, and that some patients are dying due to limited resources.
The Anchorage Health Department has also reported 2,055 new resident infections last week and 1,518 the previous week.
Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant after Monday’s meeting said the community is in a “fundamental emergency position.”
“We have to do something to end it,” he said.
On Monday after the special meeting, Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said that the mayor would likely veto the ordinance, if passed.
It is also up to the executive branch of city government, the mayor’s office, to direct enforcement of ordinances. Some Assembly members have said such an ordinance would not have teeth because it is likely the mayor would not enforce it.
“I‘m just going to assume the mayor is going to fail to do his duty, if the Assembly passes this,” Constant said. “He is going to ignore the code and be in violation of the rules and the law.”
Even without enforcement, Constant said he would expect that the majority of Anchorage residents would comply.
“There are those in the public who will not comply — there were before,” Constant said. “But what I believe is going to happen is if the Assembly passes this mandate, generally speaking, and with broad fidelity, the good people of this community will do their part to be law-abiding citizens, and they will be part of the solution.”
However, it’s not clear whether the ordinance will draw enough Assembly support to pass and then withstand a veto from Bronson.
Constant said he can’t say whether he supports the ordinance as currently written. After the meeting, LaFrance also did not say whether she would support it, saying she had just received a copy Monday and had not yet read it.
Assembly members can still make changes to the ordinance before they pass it.
LaFrance said in all Assembly legislation, the final version that is passed can be different than the introduced version, depending on amendments or revisions.
“Until we get on the floor and have the debate, we won’t know exactly what that looks like,” she said.
Under the ordinance, businesses and building owners would be required to deny entry to anyone not obeying the ordinance and wearing a mask.
There would be several exceptions to the mask requirement, according to the ordinance. For example, masks would not be required for children ages 5 and under, and people who can’t wear a mask because of a physical or mental disability would not be required to wear one.
Assembly members in recent weeks have called on the mayor to take stronger action to combat the pandemic, but the mayor has so far refused calls to directly encourage residents to get vaccinated or to wear masks. He also refused to require masks in municipal buildings after the Assembly passed a resolution asking him to do so.
On Monday, several members of the public testified against the ordinance, expressing frustration and anger with the Assembly and saying that the ordinance is an overreach of authority in what should be the personal health decisions of residents.
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Assembly member Jamie Allard of Eagle River spoke against the ordinance during the meeting.
“It’s clear that this Assembly has a savior complex and is hell-bent on us violating public constitutional rights,” Allard said after the introduction of the mask ordinance.
Allard and member Crystal Kennedy did not wear masks, though LaFrance at the beginning of the meeting asked that everyone wear one. Several members of Bronson’s administration sat in the audience, also not wearing masks.
In an interview after the meeting, Assembly member John Weddleton, who said he twice voted against a previous mask mandate, said that because treatments and vaccines are now available, he does not necessarily agree with tying the ordinance to a risk alert level based on case rates.
Still, “what does weigh with me is medical capacity. And right now we’re hearing loud and clear we’ve blown through it,” Weddleton said. “To me, that’s time we need to do something.”
Previous mask mandates have been enacted by the mayor as an emergency order while the mayor had special powers during a declared emergency.
Former Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson ended the city’s emergency declaration in May.
This mandate would be different.
“We don’t have an emergency declaration, and the mayor has indicated that’s not his direction,” LaFrance said. “And so I would say that it’s simply a legislative power.”
Constant also noted that there is still a federal declaration of emergency due to the pandemic.
Both LaFrance and Constant said they believe the ordinance, if passed, would quickly face a legal challenge.
“If that’s the case, so be it. We look forward to the robust process. I think the courts will hear the question quickly, because this is a matter of public health,” Constant said. “Every judge is also in the same position to face the reality that their spouse or their parent or child may not get health care in the emergency room, if they need at this time.”