Mayor Berkowitz to Anchorage: Quit threatening municipal employees over COVID-19

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz delivers an update about the city's handling of COVID-19.

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz today warned against any easing off social distancing guidelines, telling the community in his Monday briefing that “We are closer to the beginning than the end.”

Berkowitz said it appears that the city’s efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 are working as the state hasn’t seen an exponential boom in confirmed cases, but said that evidence over the weekend showed Anchorage residents might be growing complacent, particularly when recreating on outdoor trails.

He said he was disappointed to see people grouped together on trails over the weekend and reminded people that while exercising—and exhaling a lot more—a more appropriate distance to keep is about 20 feet than the six used in most other cases.

Berkowitz, who ordered the nearly 300,000 residents of Anchorage to hunker down on March 22, warned that the city might take tougher measures to address people who refuse to follow social distancing orders but said that social pressure and working with businesses has been a more effective measure.

“We can approach this is with carrots or sticks. I think the social pressure is a far better way to get people to do the right thing,” he said. “For example, we’ve had a number of complaints about businesses that have been doing the wrong thing or haven’t been closed when they should have been closed. Usually, when we follow up with them and explain what’s going on, businesses are compliant. I think, generally speaking, people want to do the right thing.”

However, he had particularly harsh words for people who’ve pushed back against municipal employees who’ve been tasked with enforcing the closure most businesses.

“I understand that it’s difficult for a lot of businesses and people who support businesses to not go into those businesses but stop bullying and stop threatening municipal workers who are enforcing the municipal orders,” he said. “They are doing their job and they’re doing their job because it is what keeps Anchorage safe. It is saving lives. I get that people are scared; I get that people are upset that they have to do things differently than they have but you are not being a tough guy when you’re threatening a municipal worker. You’re just being weak and scared, and it is not helpful to the situation.”

When asked about the nature of the comments by a reporter, the mayor described them as “leaving threatening messages or making threatening comments” but didn’t offer specifics.

The closure of dine-in services at restaurants and other closures have devastated businesses and resulted in skyrocketing unemployment claims in recent weeks, and Berkowitz said the stronger the initial response is the sooner things can get back to normal. He said, though, that he doesn’t expect Anchorage to reach its peak for a week or two.

When asked about Easter services this weekend, Berkowitz said they will be precluded by the current orders and urged people to find other ways to share their faith.

Asked about the long-term future of the Sullivan Arena’s use as a homelessness shelter, Berkowitz said the current sheltering of homeless individuals is only for the COVID-19 emergency.

“Sullivan Center is not going to be a long-term solution,” he said. “I’m going to be categorical about that.”

As for when Anchorage residents might expect things to ease, Berkowitz said it’s unclear but that to expect things to continue past the current emergency declaration that expires on April 14.

“It is pretty clear to me that we’re going to go past that period of time,” he said. “April 14th is not the end. I would ask that people who are trying to formulate plans because they think April 14 is the end to banish that thought. That is not the case. We are going to go past April 14.”

His closing message was for Anchorage to follow the guidelines to halt the spread of COVID-19, asking that people not try to argue that the rules don’t apply to them.

“Let’s try and do the right thing without being told you have to do the right thing,” he said, “let’s do the right thing because it is the right thing.”

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