Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include information from a statement issued by Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson on Thursday addressing his comments on the Star of David worn by mask ordinance opponents Wednesday night.
Opponents of a mask ordinance wore yellow Stars of David and shouted at Anchorage Assembly members, and four people were arrested during a second night of heated public testimony on a proposed mask ordinance for the city.
The testimony stretched until midnight and the Assembly did not vote on the ordinance. Another meeting is scheduled for Thursday.
As Alaska grapples with its worst COVID-19 surge yet, the ordinance would require masks in indoor public spaces and outdoors at large events.
Many spoke out against the proposal, which has drawn intense pushback from Mayor Dave Bronson, who has pledged not to enact any mandates to slow the spread of COVID-19. But many others urged the Assembly to move forward with a mask mandate.
Also during Wednesday’s meeting, Bronson defended the use of yellow Stars of David by people opposed to the mask ordinance.
Both Tuesday and Wednesday’s meetings were marked with tension and frequent outbursts from the crowd inside the packed Assembly chambers. Within the first half hour Wednesday, two people were escorted from the chambers by police for creating disruptions. A man was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct and was also carrying a concealed gun, according to Anchorage Police Sgt. Ken Bushue. He also faces a charge of misconduct involving a weapon, according to an APD spokesman. A woman was charged with disorderly conduct, and two other men face trespassing charges.
State officials last week activated crisis standards of care for hospitals across Alaska. Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage — the state’s largest hospital — announced this month it was rationing care. The city’s hospitals have struggled with limited resources as well as overburdened and exhausted staff, and doctors have had to make difficult decisions about prioritizing patients for treatment and care.
During the first night of the public meeting on Tuesday, Bronson — who has staunchly opposed any COVID-19 restrictions — 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 Tuesday. “But most of all, I oppose this ordinance because it pits neighbor against neighbor, shop owner against customer and friend against friend.”
He also blamed Providence’s vaccine requirement for its staffing issues.
In a letter sent to Assembly members on Wednesday, Providence CEO Preston Simmons rejected Bronson’s claim and declared the hospital’s support for the mask ordinance. He said that the hospital has not yet experienced any staff leaving due to the requirement, which does not go into effect until mid-October.
Outside of the Loussac Library on Tuesday, 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.
On Wednesday, both displays were gone.
Some people in attendance at the meetings wore yellow Stars of David with the words “Do not comply” to show their opposition to a mask ordinance. Anchorage resident Christine Hill, who unsuccessfully ran for the Assembly in 2019 and 2020, had printed out the stars at home and was handing them out for others to wear during the meeting. Hill said she wore a star to draw a comparison to the oppression and genocide of Jewish people in Nazi Germany.
“We’re going down that same road, what’s happening now, taking more and more of our freedom away. And that’s what’s happening. That’s what’s frightening,” Hill said.
The use of yellow Stars of David and other Holocaust imagery by people opposed to mask and vaccine mandates has proliferated across the country during the pandemic, drawing condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations.
Assembly member Forrest Dunbar, who is Jewish, on Wednesday spoke out against the use of the Star of David, reading a letter he received from his rabbi, Abram Goodstein.
“It was heart-wrenching for me when I noticed individuals were wearing yellow Stars of David, mimicking my Jewish ancestors who perished during the Holocaust,” Dunbar read, quoting Goodstein. “For myself and most Jews, seeing the yellow Star of David on someone’s chest elicits the same feeling as seeing a swastika on a flag or the SS insignia on a uniform. It is a symbol of hate that reminds us Jews of the terror and horror we suffered. I believe it is a constitutional right to protest for your values. But I request that you do not use symbols that diminish the 6 million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust.”
Later in the evening, a man sitting in the front row near Dunbar held up one of the stars and pointed at the assemblyman.
During testimony, a woman who said she is a physical therapist testified against the mask ordinance while wearing one of the Stars of David. She espoused beliefs that natural immunity and ivermectin are the best defenses against COVID-19. (The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has cautioned people not to take ivermectin to treat COVID-19, given that it’s not approved for that use by the FDA.)
Bronson questioned whether she felt her license and board certifications were under threat due to her beliefs. He then spoke about the stars:
“We’ve referenced the Star of David quite a bit here tonight, but there was a formal message that came out within Jewish culture about that and the message was, ‘never again.’ That’s an ethos. And that’s what that star really means is, ‘We will not forget, this will never happen again.’ And I think us borrowing that from them is actually a credit to them,” Bronson said.
In reply to an earlier question asking if Bronson supported testifiers wearing stars, the mayor’s spokesman said in an emailed statement that “the mayor’s expectation is that people show respect to all cultures and religions.”
On Thursday, Bronson released a statement saying that he should have “chosen his words more carefully,” adding: “I want to apologize for any perception that my statements support or compare what happened to the Jewish people in Nazi Germany.”
At another point in the meeting, a man was escorted out after he called Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant, who is gay, a “cocksucker.” Most of the crowd in the chambers cheered at the outburst. That man was later arrested when he tried to return to the room.
Most people who attended in-person testified against the mask mandate, calling it unconstitutional, unlawful and an overreach of government power.
One woman who spoke out against the ordinance said that there is “tyranny” in the city.
“You clearly do not have the greater good in mind,” she said. “You’re pitting neighbor against neighbor and you’re asking us to complain on each other. We are already currently divided. We do not need any more division. This is absolutely ridiculous.”
“Let’s be one Anchorage, but don’t do it through mandates,” another woman said.
A man who said he is a kids’ sports coach described his concern about a mask mandate’s effect on children’s physical activity levels, health and mental health. Many kids will not participate in sports if they have to wear masks while practicing and competing, he said.
“If they have to wear masks, they’ll pull their kids out of basketball,” he said.
Many people also called in to support the ordinance, citing concerns over the health of children who can’t be vaccinated, rising case numbers and overburdened hospitals.
Dr. Tom Hennessy, who specializes in public health and preventive medicine at UAA, called in to testify, urging the Assembly to pass the ordinance.
”There’s clear and convincing evidence that the use of facial masks and mask mandates in public settings reduces transmission and deaths from COVID-19. We know this from laboratory studies and real world evaluation of mask policies,” Hennessy said.
One woman who testified by phone described her disappointment with fellow residents for ignoring the COVID-19 crisis, saying that she had hoped when hospitals began to run out of ventilators that it would be enough to convince her neighbors to wear masks.
“I’ve heard a lot of very angry people talking about shouting about how mask mandates deprive them of their freedom,” she said. “I’m not going to shout, but I’m angry too, and furious that my neighbors are turning their backs and risking their health and their lives in order for their selfishly misguided idea of what it means to be free.”
If the Assembly passes the mask ordinance as written, businesses and building owners would be required to deny entry to anyone not wearing a mask, and masks would be required in municipal buildings, though there are some exceptions, such as for small children.
Bronson could veto the ordinance, but the Assembly could vote to override that ordinance with a supermajority of at least eight votes.
Watch the hearing: