Editor’s note: After Mayor Dave Bronson vetoed the new mask ordinance Wednesday, the Anchorage Assembly said it will consider a veto override at its meeting Thursday. Read our latest coverage here.
The Anchorage Assembly late Tuesday passed an emergency ordinance that requires people to wear masks in public spaces within the municipality, effective immediately.
The mask requirement is a revised version of an earlier proposal that drew angry crowds to the Assembly chambers and heated public testimony that’s dragged on over two weeks as mask opponents worked to stall it.
The new emergency ordinance was laid on the table during Tuesday evening’s regular Assembly meeting by members Pete Petersen and Meg Zaletel. It passed on a 9-1 vote. Assembly member Crystal Kennedy voted against it. Assembly member Jamie Allard, who called into the meeting, voted against it during an initial 9-2 vote, but due to a procedural error, members voted again and Allard didn’t participate in the second vote.
At least nine Assembly members needed to vote in favor of the emergency ordinance for it to pass, and a public hearing was not required.
The ordinance requires all people to wear masks or face coverings in indoor public areas. It is in effect for 60 days, unless two of Anchorage’s three hospitals stop operating under crisis standards of care for 14 consecutive days, or when the city is no longer experiencing high or substantial community transmission for 14 consecutive days.
It also contains several exemptions, such as for children under age 5 and people who can’t wear a mask due to mental or physical disability, and for churches and people participating in athletic activities. Mayor Dave Bronson — who strongly opposes COVID-19 restrictions, including a mask mandate — and his executive team would be exempted as well.
“This is not about getting the mayor to wear a mask. This is about our community’s health,” Zaletel said.
Bronson has 36 hours to veto the emergency ordinance, Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant said.
After the Assembly’s vote, Bronson immediately slammed the move on social media, saying he would veto the ordinance.
“Under the cloak of darkness and while misleading the public that they would be allowed to testify on the mask mandate before a vote, at 10:35pm the Anchorage Assembly snuck in an Emergency Mask Mandate that didn’t take public testimony,” Bronson wrote. “They have broken the public trust, and this Emergency Order Mask Mandate will be vetoed.”
The Assembly can override a veto with a supermajority vote.
There are key differences between the ordinance passed Tuesday night and the original mask proposal that the Assembly had considered over the past two weeks. For example, the earlier mask ordinance tied its expiration to when the city falls out of a substantial or high alert level for COVID-19 transmission.
The earlier ordinance also specified fines ranging from $50 to $300 for a first violation. The newly passed mask requirement doesn’t specify fines; it states only that the city “reserves the right to use all available enforcement options to ensure compliance.”
The new ordinance now in effect also doesn’t include a private enforcement action, in which a resident could submit a written complaint to a city administrative hearings officer. That was in an earlier version of the original ordinance and drew strong pushback from testifiers who said it would pit neighbor against neighbor.
The Assembly’s consideration of the original ordinance was slowed by an outpouring of often-raucous public testimony during the meetings, in part an attempt by mask opponents to draw out the process and keep the Assembly from voting. Thousands of people have also offered written testimony on the ordinance — a majority of whom support the mask requirement, according to Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson.
The Assembly on Monday had announced that it would continue public testimony on that original mask ordinance during a special meeting Wednesday. On Wednesday morning, Assembly leadership announced that meeting was canceled, in addition to a meeting they had tentatively scheduled for Thursday.
With far fewer people in the Assembly chambers, Tuesday’s meeting was much quieter than recent meetings on the mask ordinance. Bronson and most of his administration were absent, saying they were following COVID-19 protocols after Municipal Manager Amy Demboski and Municipal Attorney Patrick Bergt tested positive for the virus last week.
Lance Wilber, the city’s director of public works, attended in person and is serving as acting municipal manager. Larry Baker, a senior policy adviser, also attended in person.
Allard, who sharply criticized the original mask proposal, said the new emergency ordinance would draw “strong backlash” and that government officials “should never push our medical advice on anybody.”
“I will not comply,” she said, echoing the testimony of many of the anti-mask residents heard in the Assembly chambers over the past few weeks.
Statewide and in Anchorage, COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations have decreased from near-record levels in the past couple weeks, part of a possible leveling off that health officials say they’re continuing to watch closely. Many key indicators — such as seven-day case rates, testing positivity and hospitalization numbers — still remain above the levels seen during last winter’s virus surge, when vaccinations weren’t yet widely available. On Tuesday, Alaska reported fewer than 500 cases but 16 recent deaths tied to the virus, 10 of which involved Anchorage residents.
Pressures on Anchorage hospital capacity have slightly eased as the number of COVID-19 patients has gotten lower and Outside health care workers contracted by the state started arriving in recent weeks, bringing some relief to hospitals struggling with staffing shortages. Twenty health care facilities around the state, including Anchorage’s three hospitals, have activated crisis standards of care, though not all are operating in crisis mode and any decisions to prioritize treatment are fluid and made on a daily basis.
Dr. Michael Savitt, chief medical officer at the Anchorage Health Department, spoke against the new mask ordinance and said the 14-day rolling average of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in Anchorage has been steadily trending down.
“As a courtesy to the Assembly, because you requested we wear masks, I’m wearing one. I don’t need a mandate to tell me to wear a mask,” he said. “The point is that we have trended downward for almost a month now without a mask mandate.”
In response, Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia, chair of the health policy committee, said he encourages Savitt to “give us solely his medical advice, not his political advice.”
Case counts are still extremely high and hospitals are still operating under crisis standards of care, Perez-Verdia said.
“We need to take action now. This is a very reasonable approach, knowing that it’s a 60-day period. It is a compromise,” he said. “It is based on what we heard from the community. We heard from more than 200 people speaking to us in chambers, we’ve received more than 3,000 emails. We truly have listened to the community, and this emergency order is a reflection of that.”
Assembly member John Weddleton, who hasn’t supported some of the city’s past mask requirements, said he supported this ordinance because its expiration is tied to hospital capacity and crisis standards of care.
“When we hit maximum hospital capacity, it’s not an issue of people not protecting themselves and so on. This becomes an issue for everyone, and we’ve hit that. We have a problem,” Weddleton said. “There are people being denied care. We’ve heard from the hospital the directors that they are in a crisis.”
In a statement sent after Tuesday’s meeting, Assembly leaders said the Assembly “made a concerted effort to protect the public process” and listen to public input before making a decision on a mask ordinance.
“However, the public process has been abused by members of our community who have conspired to prevent the Assembly from translating those perspectives into much needed action,” they said in the statement. “After carefully listening to and reading the testimony submitted, we have concluded that we have enough data to make an informed decision that represents the will of the majority of the community.”
The friction between Assembly members on opposing sides of the mask debate came to a head when, shortly before the initial vote Tuesday, Vice Chair Constant started describing the circumstances of a testifier who he said is now hospitalized with the coronavirus and Allard angrily interjected, saying Constant was wrong and calling him “a disgrace as a public official.”
Testimony over the original proposed mask ordinance has been punctuated with acrimony, arrests, jeering, cheering and insults toward Assembly members from a crowd that showed up at each meeting voicing strident opposition to masks. Many gave testimony and gathered, unmasked, at meetings in an attempt to slow Assembly proceedings.
Bronson and Allard have encouraged opposition to the ordinance and engaged in procedural tactics during meetings that extended the already lengthy process. Further inflaming tensions were recent actions that Mayor Bronson and his administration took — such as removing private security from within Assembly chambers and dismantling a plexiglass panel installed at the dais as a COVID-19 mitigation measure — that Assembly leaders say challenge the concept of the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.
The public testimony process was further stalled last Friday when Demboski and Bergt tested positive for COVID-19, causing the Assembly to cancel its planned meeting due to members’ potential exposure to the virus.
ADN reporter Zachariah Hughes contributed to this article.
[Read the text of the emergency ordinance below.]