Continuing battle over masking derails city business at Assembly meeting

The Anchorage Assembly convened its Wednesday night meeting with a packed agenda: budget testimony, confirmations and appointments, a comprehensive homelessness strategy, ordinances affecting plastic bags and rules for mayoral appointments.

But even though the body already dealt with an acrimonious public health measure requiring mask wearing in indoor public spaces, the issue has not gone away.

A battle between the Assembly’s majority and Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration, along with its conservative allies on the Assembly and an outspoken group of public participants, dominated the meeting from the outset and led members to postpone business to Thursday.

At issue is who has control over the Assembly’s public proceedings: members of the legislative branch or the executive and administration.

Even before Wednesday’s meeting, which was moved back a day to accommodate the final day of voting in a special recall election, the Assembly signaled that it would be strict in enforcing COVID-19 prevention measures. In a midday statement, the Assembly said, “Masks or face coverings must be worn at all times in the Assembly Chambers during Assembly meetings,” noting that face shields could be used instead of masks; in-person attendance would be capped at 125 people; and alternative ways for the public to participate included phone testimony, written testimony submissions and the livestream of the meeting on YouTube.

The Assembly’s emphasis on pandemic mitigation measures comes as COVID-19 hospitalizations remain at record levels statewide. A surge that ramped up dramatically over the summer has led to a slew of virus-related deaths, and hundreds of new infections are identified daily. The Municipality of Anchorage’s seven-day case rate is over 4.5 times the national average.

But at the start of Wednesday’s meeting, it was clear that many people were not going to abide by the Assembly’s rules. Though there were security guards at the doors laying out the requirements, plenty of people walked in and promptly stripped off their masks as they settled into seats.

After gaveling in, Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance asked Municipal Manager Amy Demboski if she had told people in the audience they did not have to wear masks.

“At no time did I tell security not to enforce the policy,” Demboski said. “What I did say was the Department of Law indicated to me was that policy does not trump law.”

Demboski — whose recent COVID-19 diagnosis and potential exposure to Assembly members this month prompted the Assembly to cancel a proceeding on a mask ordinance — represented the administration’s position Wednesday. Mayor Bronson is isolating after a close contact, Anchorage Community Development Authority executive director Mike Robbins, tested positive for the virus. Bronson and his administration have opposed the citywide mask mandate and COVID-19 restrictions more generally.

A lengthy debate ensued, with Assembly members posing questions to Demboski and municipal attorneys over whether the Assembly could set stricter rules for public meetings than are laid out in the mask measure they passed.

[Prominent COVID-19 vaccine skeptics to meet in Anchorage this week as Alaska’s case rates top the nation]

The mask ordinance lays out a number of exemptions: Children under 5 aren’t required to mask, and neither are people with disabilities or the mayor’s executive team. The Assembly’s requirements for regular meetings, though, are less permissive.

Demboski, along with Eagle River representatives Crystal Kennedy and Jamie Allard, argued that anyone claiming they can’t wear a mask should be allowed in, presumably because they are covered under an exemption. They appealed to language in state law as more authoritative than local measures passed by the Assembly.

The mayor echoed their point of view on social media.

“By not allowing members of the public into the Assembly Chambers despite having exemptions that are listed in the ordinance you wrote and passed, you are trying to trump the ordinance,” Bronson wrote on Facebook after the meeting adjourned.

Members of the Assembly’s majority, however, argued that like plenty of private businesses, they were free to set stricter standards.

“The Assembly is trying to — as is its right — to implement policies for this chamber,” said Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia. “The administration is clearly saying that they control this chamber.”

“This is not about law or about protecting people’s rights. This is about asserting control, and I think it’s really unfortunate,” Perez-Verdia said.

“The exemption is not carte blanche,” said Assembly member Meg Zaletel, who appears to be defeating an effort to recall her from office in this week’s special election by a wide margin. She said the presence of maskless attendees limits the ability of those with health conditions to safely participate in public meetings. “It is time that the mask mandate be followed.”

Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant and member Forrest Dunbar asked Demboski whether the administration was refusing to enforce Assembly rules.

“We will follow the law,” Demboski replied.

From there, the meeting devolved.

The Assembly voted that it does have the power to enforce its own mask rules, prompting Kennedy to ask what would happen to all the maskless attendees: Would they be forcibly ejected by security?

A handful of people lined up to testify, most of them maskless, and more in the audience heckled Assembly members on points they disagreed with. A few parents had brought children, none in masks. Only a few security guards were on hand.

Instead, Assembly members proposed postponing the meeting to Thursday, with the stricter mask rules now clearly in place.

Several members of the audience grew angry at this prospect and voiced their opposition.

“It is the chair’s intention to enforce this mitigation plan,” LaFrance said.

Constant asked Demboski if the administration was refusing to enforce rules.

“This feels like a trap to catch the administration,” Demboski said. “We will recognize the exemptions that this body passed in their emergency ordinance.”

Members of the audience started interjecting. “You’re going to jail,” shouted a man, pointing his finger at Dunbar, before earning a warning from the chair.

“It’s gone too far, you guys,” said Kennedy. “We have to figure out how to get past ourselves.”

She said the mask issue has become so divisive that it has stalled other important business.

“It is absolutely embarrassing and a shame to me to do these power plays just to say we did,” Kennedy said. But before she could continue, she was drowned out by raucous applause and yells from anti-mask proponents in the crowd, stalling proceedings.

“Are you going to have us all arrested?” shouted a woman in a blue sweater.

[Republican attorneys general from various states, including Alaska, criticize Biden vaccine order]

Parliamentary skirmishes ensued between members of the Assembly and Demboski.

As the mood soured, the Assembly voted six to five to adjourn, postponing city business until the next day, when they agreed to reconvene. Several audience members shouted insults at the Assembly.

Once officials had adjourned and the doors to the chamber were locked, knots of attendees continued chatting in the lobby, discussing next steps, perceived slights and future political initiatives. Two people handed out invitations to an upcoming gathering featuring speakers who have gained reputations nationally for casting doubt on the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines or advocating the use of treatments that are widely considered to be unproven by the medical community.

By 7 p.m., with the meeting prematurely ended, nearly everyone had left. In the parking lot, an RV stationed outside the chambers had a dozen cars lined up with people waiting for COVID-19 tests.

Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers the military, politics, drugs, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. Prior to joining the paper he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.