Anchorage moved into the first phase of reopening the economy today, known as “easing up” that allows many businesses to reopen with severely limited capacity, six weeks after he ordered the closure of dine-in services at restaurants and bars.
In a news conference today, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said it’s on the community to continue to practice social distancing measures and stay home as much as possible to prevent the need to revert to tougher measures. He also defended the legality of city’s response to the virus, responding to the news that U.S. Attorney General William Barr has issued guidance calling on federal prosecutors to “be on the lookout for state and local directives” that may violate the Constitution.
“If a state or local ordinance crosses the line from an appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of COVID19 into an overbearing infringement of constitutional and statutory protections, the Department of Justice may have an obligation to address that overreach in federal court,” warned the two-page memo.
Berkowitz called the direction from Barr, who’s been a staunch ally of Trump, a political effort intended to intimidate and bully local communities into reopening.
“I would hope that there wouldn’t be a single state or local leader in the country that would be intimidated from doing their duty to protect the constituents that we all serve,” he said. “I recognize that there are those who would try and layer politics into a pandemic response and my feeling is that kind of effort and intimidation and bullying ought to be rejected in the strongest possible terms.”
Trump and his administration have pushed for a swift reopening of the nation’s economy, an effort that has been bolstered by small, highly visible—and at least partially AstroTurfed—public protests around the country. Berkowitz’s hunker down orders were the target of such a protest last week, which included at least one instance of a swastika. Berkowitz, a Democrat, is Jewish.
It is very cool and chill that these demonstrators put a swastika on a sign with our Jewish mayor. https://t.co/fCoHfwfvHm
— Forrest Dunbar (@ForrestDunbarAK) April 23, 2020
Berkowitz, for his part, has supported protestors’ rights to demonstrate but said that much of the community favors a more measured response to the easing protective measures.
“I’m more prone to being persuaded than being pressured,” he said at a briefing last week.
The U.S. Justice Department has so far only weighed in on one local distancing order, issuing a 14-page “statement of interest” in a Greenvill, Miss., church’s lawsuit challenging the city’s effort to shut down drive-in religious services. The legal memo didn’t necessarily dispute the need for distancing orders, but warned that the actions appeared to single out religious services.
Throughout the hunker down order, Berkowitz has typically shied away from imposing fines or other sanctions on businesses or people who don’t follow the orders, arguing that community condemnation for bad actors is a better tool to compliance.
“Everything that we’ve done we’ve done comports with the state constitution and is consistent with the municipal charter,” he said today.
The softer approach to enforcement also means the city generally gets to stay out of the courts, likely helping dodge not just potential legal issues but also potentially disastrous political fallout.
After seeing relatively few cases of COVID-19, Alaska joined a handful of states over the weekend in loosening its social distancing restrictions. The state eased restrictions on bars, restaurants and salons on Friday. Whether the business is operating in the city of Anchorage or under areas driven by the statewide rules, businesses will only be able to operate with a quarter of their normal capacity and with other strict health restrictions.
The city of Anchorage released a multi-step plan to reopening last week that requires the city to hit several indicators such as consistent declines in cases, improved testing and bolstered public health capacity to move to continue to ease. When asked about moving onto the next phase of reopening—“recovery”—Borowitz said it’ll take more of the same progress that’s already been made.
“What we’re looking for is more of the same. In order for us to have more of the same, we’re going to have to have more and better conduct from the members of this community,” he said. “We need to step up if we’re going to ease up.”