Anchorage Assembly meetings over a proposed mask ordinance have been prolonged by extensive public testimony, as well as procedural fights most often initiated by an Assembly member and a mayor who have vowed to fight the ordinance.
The meetings have now dragged on for five nights, and more than 250 people have testified. Public testimony is still underway, scheduled to begin again at 5 p.m. Thursday. Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance has said she is not sure how many more meetings it will take to finish testimony, debate and vote.
If the Assembly passes the ordinance, people in Anchorage will be required to wear masks indoors in public spaces, in an effort to help slow surging rates of COVID-19. Assembly members have already proposed 14 amendments, and more are likely, though debate has not yet begun.
At each meeting, a crowd has shown up in-person to voice their extreme opposition to the mask ordinance. The nights have been punctuated with jeers, cheers, shouting, frequent disruptions and a few arrests, further slowing down the Assembly’s proceedings. At one point on Tuesday, the crowd briefly erupted in a chant of “we will not comply” after LaFrance announced a break following a disruption.
Also, last week, some mask opponents wore yellow Stars of David to the meetings and Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson defended that use, sparking national outrage. He later apologized. Bronson has also repeatedly questioned the urgency of the situation with COVID-19 in local hospitals.
Assembly member Jamie Allard, an opponent of the ordinance, has asked questions of most testifiers and started multiple procedural back-and-forths, effectively prolonging the meetings. Bronson has also called for points of order or points of information multiple times.
Allard did not return calls or an email for comment.
“Mayor Bronson’s focus is to hear from Anchorage residents on the proposed mask mandate ordinance. Every Anchorage resident who wants to speak has that right as part of public testimony,” said Corey Allen Young, spokesman for the mayor.
Near the end of the meeting on Tuesday, Allard stopped testimony by raising a point of information and asking a series of procedural questions, a move LaFrance said was dilatory.
“I’m accusing you of wasting time,” LaFrance eventually said to Allard.
Bronson later joined the dispute: “This is not debatable. You’re inventing things,” he said to LaFrance.
Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said Wednesday that near the end of Tuesday’s meeting, only about a dozen people were left in line to testify, and he accused Bronson and Allard of using “filibuster tactics” to stall the ordinance.
“If you put it through the frame that Bronson as applied to it, which is this existential threat to American society liberty... then you would use any means necessary,” Constant said. “It’s definitely within philosophical bounds of what you would expect.”
Bronson, in an opinion column in the Daily News, called the proposal to require masks “an infringement on the freedoms guaranteed to every Anchorage citizen by our federal and state constitutions.”
Opponents of the ordinance have put out calls on social media for large numbers of people to show up and testify on Thursday.
On Monday and Tuesday, most people who testified in person spoke against the ordinance, while last week, in-person and phone testimony was split more evenly. The Assembly also receives written testimony. Member Austin Quinn-Davidson said that as of 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, the Assembly had received 821 written testimonies against and 1,520 in favor of the mask ordinance.
Supporters and opponents of the mask mandate have rallied people to speak out at the meetings — including the mayor himself. Before the meetings, Bronson has put out calls on social media for people to show up and testify. Allard has also put out social media calls for mask opponents to attend Assembly meetings, including to people outside of the municipality.
“From Utqiagvik to Homer please come support Anchorage residents against mandates!” Allard said in a post.
LaFrance said that once the public testimony is opened on a proposed ordinance, the Assembly must take testimony until it’s finished.
“We just go until we hear from the people who want to testify,” she said. Some people from outside the municipality have shown up to speak and that has slowed meetings too, she said.
If the process continues, Assembly members could propose an emergency ordinance, which would not require public testimony, Constant said. However, an emergency ordinance requires that at least nine members vote in favor, and all members want to hear from the public, he said.
Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia has said he is undecided and that it’s important for him to listen to all residents who want to speak to the issue.
Assembly members have also heard from people who are frustrated with how long the process is taking, LaFrance said.
“This is an emergency. Not only are the hospitals filling up, it’s hurting the economy,” LaFrance said. “We’ve been asked by medical professionals who are on the front lines ... who have said, ‘Please. Please take this action.’ ”
Alaska leads the nation in new per-capita COVID-19 case rates and virus-related hospitalizations in recent weeks have hovered at record levels, though on Wednesday the state reported a two-day decline in the number of people hospitalized with the virus. Twenty health care facilities — including Providence Alaska Medical Center, Alaska Regional Hospital and Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage — across the state have activated crisis standards of care, giving them flexibility and liability protection as they contend with pressure put on existing resources.
Assembly member Crystal Kennedy said the outpouring of public testimony on a controversial mask ordinance is not surprising.
“I don’t think there’s ever anything wrong with slowing something down to make sure that you get a good product in the end,” Kennedy said. “That’s always been my rule of thumb — don’t make a decision based on fear and don’t make a decision because you felt rushed to do so.”
If the Assembly passes the ordinance, Bronson could veto it. But the members could override that veto with eight votes.
“We know that Mayor Bronson does not support masks, so I don’t think it matters to him how long it takes,” LaFrance said.