Emotions high as testimony begins on Anchorage Assembly’s proposed mask mandate

The Anchorage Assembly chambers at the Z. J. Loussac Public Library in Anchorage.
The Anchorage Assembly chambers at the Z. J. Loussac Public Library in Anchorage. (Staff photo)

Tensions were high at Tuesday night’s Anchorage Assembly meeting as the body prepared to hear testimony on a proposed mask mandate for indoor public settings and large outdoor gatherings. In the end, the meeting ran so long, most of the people who waited to speak weren’t able to.

The ordinance, similar to a mandate that was in effect for months earlier in the pandemic, was proposed by members Pete Petersen and Meg Zaletel, and would last until Dec. 31 of this year, as long as Anchorage is at a high transmission level for COVID-19. The ordinance is aimed at slowing the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant. Alaska’s healthcare system is presently in crisis, as hospital capacities are strained by a record high number of COVID-19 patients and the state has moved to crisis standards for care.

RELATED: Masking and capacity restrictions slowed the Delta variant in Juneau, expert says

In his report to the Assembly, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson strongly opposed the mandate.

“This kind of government micromanagement of the citizenry would be laughable if it weren’t so destructive and dangerous to our freedoms,” Bronson said. “COVID possesses a threat to public health because of the danger it presents to the elderly and folks with comorbidities. But as this mandate and its predecessors demonstrate, COVID also presents a growing threat to the fundamental rights guaranteed by our federal and state constitutions.”

The remarks were standard messaging from Bronson, who has refused to enact mask or social distancing mandates in response to a surge in COVID-19 cases. Bronson has stated he believes the decision to be vaccinated should be between patients and their medical providers, and not determined or influenced by government officials. He cited a number of studies he said questioned the effectiveness of masking. Providence Alaska Medical Center, he said, was overburdened due to a pre-existing staffing shortage, made worse by the hospital’s decision to require vaccination among healthcare workers.

RELATED: Anchorage mayor blames vaccine mandates for hospital staff shortage. Hospitals say he’s wrong.

At times, Bronson’s remarks drew raucous cheering from the audience. Assembly chair Suzanne LaFrance had to interrupt the mayor several times to address the crowd.

“Members of the audience need to refrain from clapping,” LaFrance said.

“You’re taking away our rights,” an audience member yelled as LaFrance spoke.

“You’re going to kill people,” another audience member exclaimed.

“You’re creating an actual disruption,” LaFrance continued. “If we cannot proceed in a mannerly fashion, we will take a break.”

LaFrance did end up calling a recess after more outbursts during the end of the mayor’s remarks.

Dozens of attendees stood for hours as the Assembly discussed typical city fare such as zoning ordinances and alcohol permits. Though members voted to extend the meeting to midnight, most attendees did not get a chance to testify on the mandate before time ran out.

RELATED: Alaska’s largest hospital now rationing care due to COVID surge

As the Assembly voted to continue the public testimony the following day, a large section of the crowd responded with groans and outcries. Assemblymember Jamie Allard addressed the crowd.

“We are going to continue the testimony tomorrow, but I have to tell you, let people speak,” Allard pleaded to the crowd. “Let them come up. If you want to be heard, be respectful. But let them come up, let them testify. And all I’m trying to say is we will not move on until we hear from the public. The last person to speak, and then it’s closed. So you’ll all be able to speak.”

The Assembly will reconvene at 6 p.m. Wednesday evening to hear more public testimony on the mask mandate.

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

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