City, legislators fire back over state’s refusal to respect Anchorage mask mandate

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles give coronaviruses their name, crown-like. Credit: NIAID-RML.

Hours after Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz on Friday released an emergency order mandating face masks, Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson issued a one-paragraph memo telling state of Alaska employees they could ignore the city’s mandate.

Now Anchorage Municipal Attorney Kate Vogel has waded into the fray, calling Clarkson’s memo “inaccurate legal advice” that “sows confusion” and “puts State of Alaska employees in legal jeopardy.” In a statement today, she wrote Anchorage is a home-rule municipality that has the power to enforce such orders within its boundaries and there’s nothing in law that exempts state-owned buildings.

“Under Alaska law, a home rule municipality possesses all legislative authority not withheld by the Legislature,” she wrote, likening the mask mandate to a fire evacuation. “The Legislature has not acted to restrict Anchorage’s authority with respect to issuing mask mandates, nor has it exempted state-owned buildings from generally applicable local health and safety rules.”

In a pandemic that has been marked by confusing and often-contradictory messages from the federal government on down, Vogel said Clarkson’s actions have only confused the situation and put Alaskans at further risk.

“The Attorney General’s memo sows confusion and unnecessarily risks the health and safety of Anchorage residents who do business with or work for state agencies,” she wrote. “Undermining a local public health order with respect to state buildings is not ‘necessary to carry out the purposes’ of disaster preparedness—it is bad for the health of our community. The Attorney Genera’s memo also puts State of Alaska employees in legal jeopardy by giving them inaccurate legal advice.”

While cities and eventually the state shuttered businesses in the early days of the pandemic, the state was reluctant to allow state workers to work from home. Public sector unions filed a lawsuit over the issue and have continued to flag concerns about whether the state is doing enough to protect front-line workers from the virus.

Several legislative hearings have highlighted the risk of COVID-19 spread, particularly in confined indoors spaces like state offices. They’ve also highlighted the effectiveness of face masks to help slow the spread of the virus, though state officials dodged questions on whether they’d ever consider a statewide mask mandate. Democratic legislators weighed in today on Clarkson’s memo.

“By discouraging the use of face coverings in state buildings, the attorney general is placing state employees at greater risk of catching COVID-19 on the job,” said Anchorage Democratic Rep. Zack Fields. “This is the latest reckless decision by the Dunleavy Administration that puts front-line workers at risk.”

Berkowitz announced the mask mandate on Friday as cases of COVID-19 continue to climb after the state and local governments lifted hunker-down orders that shuttered many businesses. He defended he action as necessary to prevent the reclosure of the economy.

“We have a choice between doing nothing, hunkering down, or masking up. Masking up makes a difference,” he said in a prepared statement on Friday. “When enough of us do it, we can flatten the curve, keep our businesses open, and our community safe.”

The city’s mandate went into effect this morning and requires people who are able to wear masks to wear them in public, communal spaces. The order exempts children under the age of 2 in all cases, children under the age of 12 without parent supervision and any individual with health concerns or those who may have difficulty communicating with a mask on.

Why it matters

While Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration got broad bipartisan approval for its initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the administration has since retreated to a more partisan handling of the pandemic that eschews additional public health mandates while relying on personal responsibility for the continued response to the virus.

The governor’s role in the virus has largely fallen in line with other Republican states, where there’s a political push to get back to normal. While cases have continued to climb since reopening, the Dunleavy administration has largely ceased its daily briefings and cut its standard media releases on COVID-19 to three times a week.

The new divide between the state and local governments also resembles the playbook in conservative states. In Texas, which has such a bad surge in cases that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has put the brakes on the remaining steps of reopening, the state has similarly feuded with progressive cities’ attempts to limit the spread of the virus.

At least in Texas, the numbers and political winds have not been in the governor’s favor.

Faced with such a massive surge in cases, Abbott late last week urged people to go back home and cleared the way for local governments to implement mask mandates after initially opposing such efforts.

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