The Anchorage Assembly on Thursday voted to override Mayor Dave Bronson’s veto of an emergency ordinance requiring people to wear masks in public spaces in the city, reviving the most significant pandemic mitigation measure enacted since Bronson took office.
Assembly members overrode the veto in a 9-2 vote during an evening special meeting. Eight votes were required to override Bronson’s veto.
The room erupted in jeers and cheers following the vote as both supporters and opponents of the measure watched in the Assembly chambers in the Loussac Library.
Assembly members Pete Petersen and Meg Zaletel introduced the emergency ordinance Tuesday night, the Assembly quickly approved it and Bronson vetoed it the next day. The action followed days of often-combative hearings as Alaska hospitals were strained by high COVID-19 case loads.
“My motivation for bringing this emergency ordinance forward had nothing to do with a power grab or politics in any way. It was all to preserve the health of the members of this community and save lives,” Petersen said ahead of Thursday’s vote.
The ordinance goes into effect immediately following Thursday’s veto override. The emergency ordinance requires all people to wear masks or face coverings in indoor public areas. It remains in effect for 60 days, though it expires if 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.
In an interview after the meeting, Bronson said that whether residents wear masks is a personal decision and that people should read the language of the ordinance because there are several exemptions.
The veto was “totally expected,” he said.
“This is our process — the way we do government. I’m perfectly fine with it. I don’t agree with the override, of course,” Bronson said.
He also said he would follow the ordinance, though it does specify that the mayor and his executive team are exempt: “It’s the law. We’re going to follow the law.”
Bronson has continued to oppose implementing COVID-19 restrictions even as the virus surge driven by the highly contagious delta variant sharply accelerated over the summer, setting new pandemic records for cases and hospitalizations as deaths steadily ticked upward. He has attacked hospitals over their vaccination requirements for employees — he’s opposed to both mask and vaccine mandates — and endorsed the use of ivermectin, an unproven treatment for the virus.
“Widespread community support”
The emergency ordinance that passed this week was developed after Assembly members heard hours of public testimony about a different proposed mask ordinance in six meetings that stretched over two weeks. Angry crowds showed up to voice vehement opposition and tensions flared between the Bronson administration and the Assembly. Thousands of written testimonies were also submitted, largely favoring a mask ordinance, according to Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson.
Assembly leaders have said the public process was abused by residents who “have conspired to prevent the Assembly from translating those perspectives into much needed action.”
Bronson and Assembly member Jamie Allard also slowed down the process by asking multiple questions of testifiers and interrupting with points of order and points of information.
“Due to the severity of the crisis in our health care system, the Assembly decided to act through an Emergency Ordinance to give this issue the urgency and weight required of the circumstances, and we stand by this decision,” Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said in a statement after the override vote. “The Assembly has heard from over 4,000 people over the course of six public meetings. The Emergency Ordinance that was passed reflects the feedback received at those meetings and has widespread community support.”
Bronson immediately condemned the Assembly after they overrode his veto, saying they continued “to break the public’s trust.”
“The nine members who voted for this mask mandate ignored the public process, shut down public testimony, shut out the people, and decided that they (not you or your healthcare provider) will make decisions about your personal health,” he said in a prepared statement. “It’s just another effort by our Assembly to force the citizens of Anchorage to do their will and silence those who desire to exercise their right to petition their government.”
The Assembly was not required to hear public testimony on the new emergency ordinance.
The mask ordinance cites continued strain on the state’s hospitals and ongoing high case counts. While COVID-19 numbers have largely plateaued recently, data points such as case rates, testing positivity rates and hospitalizations of COVID-positive patients remain at elevated levels, and health officials continue to emphasize that widespread virus transmission is occurring throughout the community. Alaska currently has the nation’s highest seven-day COVID-19 case rate per 100,000, and the Municipality of Anchorage’s case rate is even higher than the state’s.
Around 140 people were on site at the start of the meeting, according to security guards spread throughout the chamber and lobby. There was also an unusually large number of uniformed Anchorage Police Department officers — around 20, according to Police Chief Ken McCoy. Guards escorted several Assembly members, the municipal clerk and staffers to their vehicles after the meeting without incident.
Though members of the audience interrupted, insulted and yelled at Assembly members during the brief proceedings, the atmosphere was nowhere near as rowdy as it was during meetings where the public testified about the original mask ordinance.
“I will not comply”
Before the meeting officially started, mask ordinance supporters stood by the doors to the chamber handing out roses, suggesting members of the public give them to their favorite Assembly member as a sign of gratitude for their efforts.
“Civility is key,” said Erin Jackson-Hill with the group Stand-Up Alaska, which supported the mask requirement.
Mask mandate opponents stacked roses by placards for Assembly members Jamie Allard and Crystal Kennedy, the two members allied with the mayor against the health measure. Allard and Kennedy, along with four other members, were not physically present during the evening’s meeting, dialing in by phone instead.
Several people brought small signs with slogans — “I will not comply” and “Freedom” for the mask ordinance opponents, “Thank you” for the health measure’s supporters. Loud shouts of “Boo!” or “Recall!” were yelled when attendees disagreed with remarks from the dais.
“Time to get rid of the Nazi assembly,” said a woman in a red coat who held a sign that read, “Stop! No Masks.” She exited the chamber in frustration after a failed bid from Allard to extend audience participation to 7:30 p.m.
Before the vote, Assembly member Kennedy spoke out against the veto override and said that the issue is causing division in the community and that an override would “fuel that fire.”
“I don’t believe that it is wise, by any means, to try to overrule it,” Kennedy said. “I certainly understand some people’s desire to want to go against anything that the mayor does. We know that that’s fairly prevalent by many members on this body.”
Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant immediately refuted Kennedy’s statement — eliciting a chorus of boos from mask opponents.
“I’m not doing this to spite the mayor or because he objects,” Constant said. “I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do.”
Remarks from the public Thursday reflected the recent tenor of hearings on the mask mandate, with a mix of criticism toward the policy, attacks against Assembly members and other gestures of protest.
One woman began her audience participation comments by taping up flyers supporting the recall effort underway against Assembly member Zaletel, using the rest of her time to fill out her recall ballot while narrating what she was doing.
Jordan Harary read a poem opposing masks, then finished by announcing he had created a new religion called “The Assembly Doesn’t Speak for Anchorage,” and all members could claim an exemption from mask requirements. The emergency ordinance includes an exemption for religious assemblies.
“One of our tenets is that our church is the entire city,” Harary said, “I am the president of such a religion. Your masks are now moot.”
The Daily News’ Marc Lester contributed reporting.
[Read the text of the emergency ordinance below.]