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Anchorage Assembly passes emergency ordinance requiring masks

Mayor Bronson says he will veto the measure
Members of the public testify during the regular Anchorage Assembly meeting on Tuesday, Oct....
Members of the public testify during the regular Anchorage Assembly meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021 in the Loussac Library in Anchorage, Alaska.(Jeremy Kashatok/Alaska's News Source)
Published: Oct. 12, 2021 at 10:42 PM AKDT|Updated: Oct. 13, 2021 at 12:02 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Anchorage Assembly passed an emergency ordinance during Tuesday night’s regular meeting that will require people to wear masks for no more than 60 days within the municipality.

The assembly has been holding an ongoing public hearing to get input from the community on a proposed ordinance that would require masking. Those meetings have been drawn out over the last two weeks and have been marked by outbursts and disruptions from the public, arrests and the use of a Holocaust symbol by some people to protests the proposed health measure.

The public hearing was set to continue on Wednesday, but assembly member Pete Petersen, one of the sponsors of the original, used a moment of personal privilege to introduce an emergency ordinance during Tuesday night’s regular meeting. It is similar to the original ordinance being considered, and incorporates several changes that had been proposed as possible amendments. Emergency ordinances do not require public testimony.

It passed with a vote of 9-1, with assembly member Crystal Kennedy voting against it. Due to a procedural error, the assembly had to vote on the ordinance a second time. Assembly member Jamie Allard initially voted no, for a 9-2 outcome during the first vote, but she did not participate when assembly members voted the second time.

The emergency ordinance will require people in Anchorage to wear masks or face coverings when they are in public indoor areas. The ordinance will sunset no later than in 60 days, or when two of Anchorage’s three local hospitals are no longer operating under crisis standards of care for 14 consecutive days. It will also no longer be in effect if Anchorage’s transmission of COVID-19 falls below the high or substantial level.

In a post to Facebook Tuesday night, Mayor Dave Bronson, who has staunchly opposed a mask requirement, said the emergency ordinance was passed “under the cloak of darkness and while misleading the public that they would be allowed to testify on the mask mandate before a vote.”

Bronson said he will veto the ordinance. To override a mayoral veto, the assembly needs a supermajority of eight votes.

“Masks are the simplest and cheapest ways to help keep our schools and businesses open so that we can continue to rebuild our economy,” Petersen said Tuesday night as he spoke to the emergency ordinance.

Alaska has seen a slight decrease in COVID-19 cases recently — state health department data shows a 9% decrease the week of Oct. 5-11 from the week before — but health officials and hospital administrators have cautioned that the state has a long way to go.

Assembly member Meg Zaletel, the other sponsor of the original mask ordinance, said she doesn’t disagree that COVID-19 numbers are currently trending downward.

“But this is an opportunity for the layering of strategies and mitigation measures for the next 60 days,” she said. “... The fact that our hospitals are in crisis standards of care should not be taken lightly. I appreciate the reinforcements we have from the state contract, but operating under crisis standards of care with reinforcement and doing nothing more is irresponsible. If we layer these mitigation measures for the next 60 days, we will have the opportunity to really bring our case counts down, hopefully give our hospitals the relief that they deserve, and steady out to give our health care workers not just enough staff, but enough staff to take a break.”

The state Section of Epidemiology released a report in January that evaluated the emergency public health order that were active in Anchorage during the summer of 2020. The report found the orders were “followed by a substantial decline in COVID-19 transmission and rates.”

“The (municipality’s) mask order (EO 13) in late June was followed by a decrease in the growth rate of the COVID-19 epidemic in Anchorage,” the report found. “The Emergency Orders that limited and then closed public venues in late July and early August were followed by an even greater drop in transmission and the epidemic in Anchorage began to decline.”

Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia pointed out that while cases are trending down, they are still high. Alaska still has the highest rate of new cases per capita in the nation.

“We heard from more than 200 people speaking to us in chambers,” Perez-Verdia said. “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 Austin Quinn-Davidson said that, as of shortly after 4 p.m. Tuesday, the assembly had received 1,323 emailed comments that were opposed to the mask requirement, but 2,399 that were in favor of it.

Assembly member John Weddleton has voted against city mask requirements when they’ve come up in the past. On Tuesday, he said he supports this one because of how hospital capacity has changed since then.

“When we had hit maximum hospital capacity, it’s not an issue of people not protecting themselves and so on, but it was, this becomes an issue for everyone,” Weddleton said. “And we’ve hit that, we have a problem. And there are people being denied care.”

Weddleton said he hopes cases and hospitalizations continue trending downward.

“The longest this goes would be 60 days, and I fully expect that we’ll be out of it before then,” he said.

In objecting to the ordinance, Allard said it’s not up to the assembly to tell the community what they should do when it comes to masks.

“We as government officials should never push our medical advice on anybody,” Allard said. “This is up to the public, this is up to the community. ... I feel this is going to have strong backlash and I will also put on record: I will not comply.”

Among the changes made to the emergency ordinance compared to the original measure being considered are that any child under 5 is not required to wear a mask, and neither is anyone participating in an athletic activity. Anyone with a mental or physical disability preventing them from wearing masks is also exempt.

The new emergency ordinance also specifically exempts the mayor and his executive team from wearing masks, as well as religious assemblies.

The revised emergency ordinance also removed a controversial section of the original measure that would have allowed residents to take private enforcement action against others not in compliance with the requirement.

This article has been updated with additional quotes and information.

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