Anchorage

Anchorage Assembly set to vote on override after mayor vetoes emergency ordinance requiring masks

After a bitter, weeks-long debate, the Anchorage Assembly passed an emergency ordinance late Tuesday night requiring people in the city to wear masks in indoor public spaces — and Mayor Dave Bronson on Wednesday followed through with his vow to veto it.

“At the core concept of Alaska’s liberty is the notion of personal immunity from government control and the right to be let alone,” the mayor said in his veto. “The Assembly’s actions demonstrate a disregard for the public, the public process, and the privacy of all residents.”

The Assembly can — and likely will — override the mayor’s veto with a supermajority of eight votes. Assembly leaders announced a meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday in the Assembly chambers to consider a veto override.

The new emergency ordinance requiring masks was approved by the Assembly in a 9-1 vote late Tuesday evening. It came after six days of meetings on a previously proposed mask ordinance, which dragged out over two weeks as angry crowds showed up to protest it and acrimony grew between the Bronson administration and the Assembly. At one point, the mayor drew national condemnation for endorsing the use of yellow Stars of David to signal opposition to the mask requirement. (Bronson later released a statement saying “if I offended anyone, I am truly sorry.”) Finally, a meeting on Friday was canceled after two members of the Bronson administration tested positive for COVID-19.

The Assembly’s new mask requirement is a revised version of the earlier proposal. It went into effect immediately on Tuesday after the vote, but is no longer in effect following the mayor’s veto on Wednesday. It will go back into effect if the Assembly overrides the veto on Thursday.

Citing continued strain on Alaska’s hospitals as the state’s COVID-19 case counts remain high, the emergency ordinance requires people in Anchorage to wear masks or face coverings in indoor public areas. It is in effect for 60 days, until two of Anchorage’s three hospitals stop operating under crisis standards of care for 14 consecutive days, or until the city is no longer experiencing high or substantial community transmission for 14 consecutive days.

[Alaska reports over 1,200 COVID-19 cases on Wednesday as hospitalizations rise slightly]

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, for churches and other religious assemblies, and for people participating in athletic activities. Bronson 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,” said Assembly member Meg Zaletel, who introduced the ordinance along with member Pete Petersen.

“Deceitful and wrong”

The emergency ordinance was laid on the table partway through Tuesday evening’s regular Assembly meeting, and there was no announcement that it would be taken up at the meeting.

Assembly member Crystal Kennedy voted against it. Assembly member Jamie Allard, who called into the meeting and is vehemently opposed to mask requirements, voted against it during an initial 9-2 vote but, due to a procedural error, members voted again. Allard, after angrily disputing remarks by Vice Chair Chris Constant, didn’t participate in the second vote, resulting in the final 9-1 tally. At least nine Assembly members needed to vote in favor of the emergency ordinance for it to pass.

The Assembly was not required to hear public testimony on the emergency ordinance, and they canceled a meeting scheduled for Wednesday to hear more public comment on the earlier mask ordinance.

Bronson blasted the Assembly on social media Tuesday night after the vote and promised a veto. The mayor followed through on Wednesday, calling the Assembly’s action “deceitful and wrong.”

“The people were told there would be public testimony this week. Instead, the Anchorage Assembly shut down public testimony, did a bait and switch, and snuck in their personal desires. They have made their agenda clear: shut down the people, shut down the public process, and shove the heavy hand of government mandates into your personal health decisions,” Bronson said.

In a statement sent after Tuesday’s meeting, Assembly leaders said they “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. “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 Assembly’s consideration of the original proposed ordinance was slowed in part by an attempt from mask opponents to draw out the process and keep the Assembly from voting. In addition to the hundreds who showed up to testify, thousands also offered written testimony on the ordinance — a majority of whom support the mask requirement, according to Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson.

In total, Assembly members heard in-person and phone testimony from 276 people and received more than 4,000 written testimonies, Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said.

“The testimony was critical in helping to shape the emergency ordinance that was passed,” she said.

[Anchorage Assembly hires law firm in separation of powers dispute with mayor]

The emergency ordinance had been tentatively scheduled for introduction during the now-canceled Wednesday meeting, LaFrance said. Assembly members can move to lay an item on the table at any point during meetings, she said.

“It’s hard to predict how Assembly meetings will go in terms of what will be laid on the table, what will be voted on, what will be postponed,” she said.

“Grounds for recall”

Assembly leadership has said that Bronson is not likely to enforce the ordinance. In his statement Wednesday, Bronson noted the lack of specified consequences for violating the mask requirement.

“Please know, there are no fines, no fees and no punishments for violating this ordinance,” Bronson said. “It’s just one more effort by our Assembly to force the citizens of Anchorage to do their will without hearing from everyone who wanted to testify or participate in the public process.”

Constant said that the ordinance is “relying on the goodwill of people to do their part” and that he believes most residents will abide by the law.

But, Constant asserted, if the mayor doesn’t enforce the ordinance, “it is certainly grounds for recall.”

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 a version of the original ordinance and drew strong pushback from testifiers who said it would pit neighbor against neighbor.

Other changes that incorporated public feedback include the exemptions for athletic activities, churches and disabled individuals, Zaletel said.

Statewide and in Anchorage, COVID-19 case counts have slightly decreased on average 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 Wednesday, Alaska reported 1,239 new cases and a slight increase in hospitalizations.

“It is a compromise”

Pressures on Anchorage hospital capacity have eased somewhat as the number of COVID-19 patients has ticked down from pandemic highs and Outside health care workers contracted by the state started arriving in recent weeks, but a state hospital association leader on Wednesday noted that facilities across Alaska “are still under a tremendous amount of stress.” 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. Bronson and Savitt both cited recent decreases in case counts and hospitalizations as further reason to quash a mask mandate.

“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,” Savitt 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.

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.”

Public testimony on the originally proposed mask ordinance remains open.

“It’s the intent to continue it into the future, to continue the public hearing,” Zaletel said. “I think we need to first see if the emergency ordinance will go back into effect tomorrow with a veto override. I fully suspect that it will.”

The Assembly will continue to monitor the public health situation over the next 60 days while the emergency mask ordinance is in effect, she said.

“Hopefully we don’t see any reason that we might need to take up the other ordinance again,” she said.

But, in case the COVID-19 situation again worsens, “it’s a tool we still have,” Zaletel said.

[Read the text of the emergency ordinance below.]

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