Anchorage residents filled the Assembly chambers Tuesday night as the Assembly began its debate of an ordinance that would require all residents to wear masks in indoor public spaces and outdoors at large, crowded public events to help limit the spread of the COVID-19.
The Assembly did not vote on the mask ordinance Tuesday. Public testimony began late Tuesday and will extend for a second meeting into Wednesday night.
Alaska is grappling with record hospitalizations and case counts as the state sees its worst surge of the COVID-19 pandemic yet.
City leaders are considering the ordinance — which, if it passes, would represent the strictest pandemic mitigation measure enacted since Mayor Dave Bronson took office — at a time when Anchorage’s hospitals are struggling with short staffing, strained resources and difficult decisions over prioritizing patients for treatment.
Tuesday’s meeting was marked with tension and outbursts from a crowd that spilled into Loussac Library’s lobby. Many attendees, largely unmasked, wore red clothing to signal their opposition to the mask ordinance. Some carried signs and staged small protests outside. Others, many wearing masks, attended in support of the ordinance.
Outside of the library, 535 white flags representing the lives of Alaskans who have lost their lives to COVID-19 stood in a patch of grass. Handmade signs depicting messages of gratitude for health care workers also lined the library property along 36th Avenue and Barrow Street.
Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance called for frequent breaks due to disruptions from the audience, and at one point she called for security guards to escort at least one person from the chambers.
At the beginning of the meeting, Bronson spoke out against the ordinance, calling it “reckless and ill conceived.”
“I oppose this ordinance because it is based on inconclusive science, because it is bad policy, and because it is an unconstitutional infringement on the freedom guaranteed to every Anchorage citizen by our federal and state constitutions,” Bronson said. “But most of all, I oppose this ordinance because it pits neighbor against neighbor, shop owner against customer and friend against friend.”
Assembly members have said they expect Bronson will not enforce the mask ordinance and that he is likely to veto it. The Assembly would need a supermajority of 8 votes to override a veto from Bronson.
Assembly members Meg Zaletel and Pete Petersen are sponsors of the ordinance. On Tuesday, Zaletel withdrew a version that included a provision allowing for private enforcement action, in which a resident could submit a written complaint to a city administrative hearings officer. Zaletel had previously said she included it so residents could seek enforcement if the mayor does not implement it.
“I’ve decided to remove the private enforcement provision, but I want to be very clear: It is removed because most residents will follow the law and that will be effective in bringing COVID cases down,” Zaletel said. “And more importantly, it is fully expected that the administration in its role as the executive branch will implement and enforce all validly passed ordinances by the Assembly, the municipality’s legislative branch. Failure to do so could be a violation of the separation of powers.”
Bronson said he is concerned about the staffing problems at Providence but blamed the hospital for many of its issues.
“The hospital’s leadership is only compounding the problem by mandating a vaccine that by some estimates, 20% of its nursing staff will refuse and as a result will be fired. We do not need a mass mandate to address our health care staffing problems,” Bronson said. “Providence self-inflicted problems do not justify infringing on people’s fundamental rights.”
Anchorage hospital leaders have said that vaccine requirements for workers are not contributing to any current staffing issues. The vaccine requirements are also not yet in effect at Providence and Alaska Native Medical Center, and Providence has predicted only 1% to 3% of its workforce is at risk of losing employment or leaving. Alaska Regional Hospital does not require vaccines.
Providence chief of staff Dr. Kristen Solana Walkinshaw and Dr. Leslie Gonsette, an internal medicine hospitalist, spoke during initial audience participation, pleading with residents to get vaccinated and to take COVID-19 precautions seriously.
“We are here to serve you. That is what we grew up wanting to do, and not tell you what to do or take away your freedoms,” Gonsette said, urging people to get information about COVID-19 from health care professionals and describing the proliferation of misinformation.
“This is unreal, when science is not being listened to, when health care professionals are not being listened to, because this is a pandemic. This is not politics,” Gonsette said. “Politics should never marry health care. And what has happened? Suffering and death.”
Providence’s emergency department has seen some relief in the past two weeks, though elective surgeries requiring ICU beds have been canceled until at least Monday and will be re-evaluated on a regular basis, Walkinshaw said.
The Assembly did not take up the mask issue until late and just a few people testified before the meeting ended at midnight.
If the Assembly passes the mask ordinance on Wednesday, businesses and building owners would be required to deny entry to anyone not wearing a mask, and masks would be required in municipal buildings.