Will Anchorage Adopt a Mask Mandate?
Alaska led the country and the world in COVID-19 cases per capita in September, reporting over a thousand cases daily for over a week straight. A spotlight was shown on the blatant lack of administrative leadership amidst one of the most devastating public health crises in Alaska history. All healthcare facilities across the state have announced a dire lack of resources amidst the spike, now only able to provide crisis standards of care. Governor Dunleavy, beyond expressing gratitude for those healthcare workers, has taken no action to address the spike or support those efforts.
The Anchorage School Board heard public outcry in August when first announcing a mask policy for the Anchorage School District. Now, the Anchorage Assembly found itself at the center of contention in introducing a citywide mask mandate. With the statewide vaccination rate growing stagnant (less than 62% of Alaskans are fully vaccinated according to the state COVID-19 Vaccination Dashboard), the mask ordinance was written in accordance with latest CDC recommendations by Assembly Members Meg Zaletel and Pete Petersen. To ease the burden on healthcare workers and slow the spread of infection in the community, the ordinance would require Anchorage and Eagle River residents to wear masks indoors in public settings and outdoors at large crowded events. The ordinance includes a novel exemption for individuals who cannot tolerate wearing a mask due to mental or physical disability. This exemption was not enough to subdue the mob that appeared before the ordinance’s first testimony hearing.
Save Anchorage zealots flooded the chambers in red, loudly opposing mask wearing, vaccination, and communism, among others. A vast majority of said testifiers proudly wore yellow Stars of David, drawing direct comparison between Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany and the requirement to cover their face under the proposed ordinance. Later it was revealed those stars were appropriated by and utilized as explicit campaigning by the Recall Meg Zaletel efforts.
When these anti-Semitic connotations were addressed by Jewish Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar, he was met with mockery from the crowd and repeated threats from a Save Anchorage supporter who repeatedly signaled for his attention with a yellow star and menacing glares. Mayor Bronson had only support for “borrowing” the yellow Stars of David, until it gained him national attention, so he quickly redacted those statements.
The mask ordinance’s initial hearing quickly turned into 7 hour long special meetings, stretching into an additional 3-4 days of raucous public testimony. In a single meeting, a man was escorted out of the chambers after verbally abusing Assemblyman Christopher Constant, and another was arrested for failing to disclose to police officers a concealed firearm. No less than 10 APD officers were present at each meeting in response to the overwhelming influx of public participation, but their presence did little to inspire order among the crowd.
Mayor Bronson, heavily cheered and outwardly supported by the Save Anchorage crowd, had only outdated evidence to pull from while debunking the effectiveness of mask-wearing in reducing the COVID-19 transmission rate, completely ignoring any research made in 2021. This, along with a continued misunderstanding of procedural decorum were his contributions throughout the public testimony process. Caught between the gubernatorial and mayoral administrations’ commitment to disinformation, and a public misguided with false outrage, will our Anchorage Assembly stand firm in promoting the interests of public health during our darkest hour?
Update: The Assembly passed an Emergency Ordinance on October 12, face coverings are mandatory in Anchorage until the danger of mass COVID-19 infection passes.