Anchorage

Bronson administration COVID-19 cases derail lengthy Anchorage mask debate marked by acrimony among city leaders

The Anchorage Assembly abruptly canceled its Friday meeting on a proposed citywide mask ordinance, saying in a statement that two members of the Bronson administration who were in “really close contact” with Assembly members tested positive for COVID-19.

The cancellation is the latest development to derail the Assembly’s consideration of the mask ordinance. Night after night of raucous public testimony has seen tensions escalate between the Assembly and Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration over delays in the process and security and health measures within meeting chambers.

The mayor’s office confirmed on Friday that Municipal Manager Amy Demboski and Municipal Attorney Patrick Bergt tested positive for the virus.

“It’s just those two,” Bronson spokesman Corey Allen Young said in an email. “Both were vaccinated.”

Both Demboski and Bergt are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, according to Young. He said it wasn’t immediately clear where either may have contracted the virus.

Assembly leaders canceled Friday’s meeting to continue public testimony on the mask ordinance, which had been scheduled to begin at 3 p.m.

“Earlier today, Assembly leadership was informed by the administration that all Assembly members physically present at the Thursday, October 8 meeting have come into ‘really close contact’ with two COVID-19 positive individuals from the administration,” the Assembly said in its statement Friday.

“Even though most Assembly members were wearing masks and are vaccinated, and thus are more protected from contracting COVID-19, Assembly leadership feels it is in the best interest of the safety of the public, staff, administration, and Assembly members to cancel tonight’s continued meeting,” the statement said.

Young said both Demboski and Bergt were in close contact with some Assembly members.

“Amy and Patrick were in close contact. That’s normal for them to interact with members in every Assembly meeting,” he said.

Demboski, a former Assembly member, was named city manager after Bronson’s election in May.

“I don’t run the city,” Bronson said in a recent speech to the Rotary Club. “Amy Demboski runs the city. I provide the strategic direction I picked her. Or maybe she picked me, I don’t know. ... She knows exactly what she’s doing and how to execute the goals of this team.”

In an email to city employees and officials Friday afternoon, Demboski said that she will be out of the office for two weeks. During that time, Lance Wilber, who currently serves as the municipality’s director of public works, will serve as acting municipal manager.

The Bronson administration is working to block the mask ordinance from going forward, and during the past few Assembly meetings the mayor, the city manager and other top members of his administration have not worn masks. Bergt was one of the few members of the administration to wear a mask in recent meetings.

[COVID-related cancellations of conferences and events pulled $39 million out of the Anchorage economy this year]

Further delays possible in an already-extended process

Assembly leaders also said they were considering postponing the upcoming regular meeting Tuesday “to allow for adequate time for Assembly members and members of the administration to follow appropriate CDC guidelines and the Municipality’s protocols for testing and quarantine.” That decision will be released “shortly,” they said Friday.

Several Assembly members say the extended public comment has grown into an attempt to slow down proceedings. Mask mandate opponents have shown up en masse for each night of public testimony. Bronson and Assembly member Jamie Allard, who both strongly oppose COVID-19 restrictions and masking requirements, have encouraged comments and engaged in procedural tactics that draw out the process and stall testimony. On social media, opponents of the mask ordinance are calling on others to testify as part of a filibuster strategy, and encouraging families to bring their children to testify.

A largely anti-mask crowd packed the Assembly meeting chambers this week, chanting, cheering, jeering and even singing, ignoring repeated requests from the Assembly chair to maintain order. A group served pizza to attendees in the entrance to the library.

“Push it back — as long as we have testimony, they can’t vote,” Anchorage resident Christine Hill said Thursday to cheers from the crowd.

Another man said the issue is “not about masks.” “This is a question between good and evil,” he said. The crowd erupted in cheers.

Another warned Assembly members who are facing re-election in April that “we’re getting our backbone, we’re standing tall, we’re locking our knees and we’re coming after you.”

“There is a line between passionate testimony on an important issue and abuse of the process to delay consideration of the proposed solution. This week, we crossed that line,” Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia said Saturday in a Facebook post.

Assembly vice chair Chris Constant said Friday after receiving word of the new cases and potential virus exposure that the outcome was the predictable result of the administration’s conduct during the meetings.

“The theme I’ve been hearing is ‘play stupid games, win stupid prizes,’ " said Constant, who has been critical of the Bronson administration’s handling of the pandemic.

“The mayor’s team just came down with COVID, and maybe shared it with us,” Constant said, though he believes that most of the Assembly members have taken adequate precautions to protect themselves.

Constant himself was not at Thursday’s meeting in person. Neither were member and former acting mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson or Midtown Assembly member Meg Zaletel.

“I don’t know what happens next,” Quinn-Davidson said of public testimony over the proposed mask mandate and a flurry of amendments — 14 so far. “I think everyone’s still reeling from the news if they were in the chambers.”

She said she had been informed of the cases not by the Bronson administration itself, but by Assembly chairwoman Suzanne LaFrance about an hour before the meeting was scheduled to begin Friday.

Overall, she believes the administration’s approach to the prolonged public process has been detrimental not just to the public’s health but also other pressing Assembly business, such as budget negotiations, responding to constituent concerns and myriad other low-profile functions.

“I think it’s immature and it ultimately doesn’t serve the public well,” Quinn-Davidson said.

‘It could go on for a long time’

During Assembly meetings and in other public forums, Mayor Bronson has downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and its impact on hospitals even as COVID-19 cases in Anchorage recently hit pandemic highs, the culmination of a virus surge that started ramping up in July. He’s continued to avoid recommending mask wearing and vaccinations, both proven methods of reducing virus transmission and reducing the risk of serious illness.

[Elective procedures become a flashpoint in the debate over Anchorage’s hospital capacity]

A recent report from Alaska’s Division of Public Health that examined virus cases through August 2021 determined that while vaccine breakthrough cases have become more common — partially because of waning immunity over time — vaccinations significantly reduce the risk of hospitalization and death and continue to provide strong protection against the virus.

Young, the mayor’s spokesman, said that even though Bronson had been close to Demboski and Bergt during Thursday’s meeting, he and all other members of the administration received negative results on Friday after taking rapid tests. The mayor will remain quarantined at home, monitor himself for symptoms and submit to further testing before resuming in-person activities, according to Young.

“Protocol means go home, get tested, then stay away for however many days,” Young said.

Bronson has said publicly that he had a mild case of COVID-19 last November, with long-term health effects, and wasn’t planning to get the vaccine. He’s also spoken out against vaccine mandates, including those at Anchorage hospitals.

The new COVID-19 cases and potential virus exposure are “an inevitable outcome of the policy choices that the administration has made,” said Assembly member Forest Dunbar, who narrowly lost to Bronson in this year’s mayoral election and has been increasingly critical of the administration’s response to the ongoing public health crisis.

“We’d all heard about positive cases in the crowd,” Dunbar said. “We know that it’s not safe in there, we know the administration has not allowed the chair to take reasonable precautions against COVID.”

Bronson said in a Facebook post Saturday that his staff followed protocols for testing, reporting their positive test result and seeking treatment. “I hope none of our Assembly members get COVID,” he said.

Thursday’s chaotic meeting marked an escalation in confrontational moves by the Bronson administration toward the Assembly. Early in the meeting, Assembly chair LaFrance ruled that in order to speed up the meetings, no members could ask questions of commenters — a move opposed by Bronson, Demboski and Assembly member Allard.

Dean Gates, the Assembly’s legal counsel, said that the ruling is “narrowly tailored to a very specific circumstance” to help the Assembly complete business related to an important public health issue.

“We’re in our sixth day of using our city resources and time and so forth. And that, I think, might be unprecedented,” he said.

At Bronson’s direction, Adam Trombley, the city’s director of economic development, shortly afterward removed a plexiglass shield that sat for months on the podium between public testifiers and Assembly members as a COVID-19 mitigation measure.

The Bronson administration also ordered a private security contractor to leave the chambers, even as disruptive behavior persisted among audience members. When questioned about security’s absence, Demboski said that the Anchorage Police Department was acting as the security presence in the chambers.

Assemblyman Perez-Verdia, noting that mask opponents have brought weapons to meetings, said Saturday that the removal of security from Assembly chambers was “an effort to intimidate its members.”

“That is why I am also in favor of an emergency order that would effectively end this mockery of due process and allow us to move forward with the critical business of making hard and important decisions for our city,” he said on Facebook.

It’s unclear what the virus cases among members of the administration mean for public hearings on the mask ordinance. If individuals are symptomatic or can’t get confirmatory test results back, the public process could be stalled well into the coming week, or beyond. It also wasn’t immediately clear whether there would be enough support on the Assembly for the kind of emergency order Perez-Verdia described.

“It could go on for a long time,” Assembly member John Weddleton said Friday about debate on the mask ordinance.

“Not even COVID can kill this thing,” Weddleton added.

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