The Anchorage Assembly’s pending mask mandate is a big deal

The sign outside a restaurant in Girdwood reads "Your mask helps us stay open." (Photo by Matt Buxton/TMS)

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Update: Assembly member Meg Zalatel says she no longer plans to introduce the measure with the public reporting avenue. It would revert to the original version that would rely on the administration to enforce the ordinance. In a texted statement she said: “I’ve decided to remove the private enforcement provision, but I want to be very clear. It is removed because most residents will follow the law and that will be effective in bringing COVID cases down. And more importantly, it is fully expected that the Administration in its role as the executive branch will implement and enforce all validly passed ordinances by Assembly, the Municipality’s legislative branch. Failure to do so could be a violation of the separation of powers.”

The Anchorage Assembly will tonight kick off what is expected to be several days of incredibly acrimonious public testimony on an ordinance requiring masking contrary to the hands-off approach pushed by extreme-right Mayor Dave Bronson, who has spent the last few weeks drumming up opposition and hysteria against the measure.

The measure would be in effect through the end of the year or whenever the municipality drops out of the significant or high alert levels (all but three borough/census areas in the state are not currently under the high alert level) and contains several exemptions. In the likely event that the measure is vetoed, the veto is overridden and Bronson still refuses to enforce the measure, the ordinance allows the public to file their own complaints with the city.

The measure would require business and building owners to deny entry to anyone refusing to wear a mask with daily penalties accruing at a rate of $50-$300 for the first offense and $300-$600 for the subsequent offenses. Nothing in the ordinance limits the size of public gatherings or mandates vaccinations.

The exemptions include: Very young children (children under 5), fully vaccinated employees in a workspace separate from public and unvaccinated coworkers, while participating in sporting events, while performing or presenting as long as there’s 10-feet between the performer and the audience, people with physical or mental disabilities, people who are incarcerated, and to “eat, drink, or briefly scratch an itch.”

With covid-19 cases fast spiraling out of control and the health care system in near-collapse, it’s what health care workers and others have been calling for with increasing urgency and with good reason. Masking up in Anchorage has been proven to make a difference in the course of the pandemic. According to the state’s own research of the public health decisions made in 2020, the city saw a near-immediate drop in the reproductive number of the virus—the rate at which you’d expect one case to produce another (anything above 1 is bad, though it looks like other metrics are more favored nowadays)—following the city’s implementation of a mask mandate. The results are particularly strong when combined with limitations on gatherings, which is not included in this ordinance.

“Implementation of (the health orders) was also followed by a substantial decline in COVID-19 transmission and rates,” explains the report, an archived version of which can be found here. “(The reproductive number) fell below 1 for most of August and we observed a corresponding decline and stabilization of daily COVID-19 case counts while these EOs were in effect. … This was the first time Anchorage saw a (reproductive number) consistently below 1 since mid-May.”

The state’s data backlog continues to cloud the picture we’re getting on just what’s going on with the pandemic, but Monday’s report added a total of 4,025 total new cases for the three-day period covering Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They also added another 21 deaths to the state’s count. It’s not immediately clear how much of the new cases and deaths are recent or were from previous months, as state officials said was the case with the report of nearly 1,800 cases and 44 deaths that were reported on Friday. (It sounds like most were from September, according to the ADN.)

Alaska now not only has the highest seven-day average of new cases but one of the nation’s highest rates for recent covid-related deaths (though, again, this is all muddied by the state’s backlog in reporting cases and deaths).

Which is all to say that the muddled information about cases and deaths will be one of the tamer things that the veritable tsunami of anti-mask opponents will bring to bear on the Anchorage Assembly in what may be several days of incensed testimony and disruptive hearings. Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson and his cronies have already been priming opposition to the masking ordinance, including a pep rally in the Anchorage Assembly chambers where the administration gave platform to several conspiracy theories that included the wicked accusation that hospitals are making it all up and worked people into a fever pitch against masking and vaccines, which are not part of this ordinance at all.

If you support the ordinance, it’s more important than ever to have your voice heard in this process. The Assembly takes written testimony, phone testimony and in-person testimony, the latter of which is unfortunately the most effective as it’s people in seats that countervails the increasingly disruptive opponents. If you’re not willing to expose yourself to the opponents, which is 100% understandable, then you can still testify through the phone or written testimony (which I’m told is somewhere in the realm of 3:1 in support).

It’s also likely that the testimony will stretch beyond just tonight (the ordinance is currently at the end of the agenda) and the Assembly has already scheduled a meeting for Wednesday. Additional days of testimony could be added, if needed.

Find information on all the ways to testify here.

In the big political picture

This vote has been a long time coming and serves as a showdown between the Anchorage Assembly and the increasingly petty Bronson administration—which on Friday decided to lock the Assembly out of any direct communications with city employees. Bronson’s expected to veto the measure—I wouldn’t be surprised if he tries to do it immediately following its passage to get more sophomoric posts about “brass balls” from the right-wing sphere—and the Assembly will override it, creating a situation where Bronson would be expected to enforce a law he opposes.

“I‘m just going to assume the mayor is going to fail to do his duty, if the Assembly passes this,” Anchorage Assembly member Christopher Constant told the Anchorage Daily News. “He is going to ignore the code and be in violation of the rules and the law.”

(And also the grounds for a recall.)

Interestingly, the latest version of the ordinance appears to take a page out of the Texas abortion law’s playbook (an extraordinarily bizarre thing to write) by inviting the public to enforce the mandate through filing their own “private enforcement action” by filing a complaint with the city:

All that aside

Even with the political turmoil and headaches over enforcement, the measure still sends a strong message. While Bronson may be willing to ignore the law, I’m guessing that most people would get the message that, hey, we’re in the worst place of the pandemic and the minor inconvenience of masking is a small price to pay to get it under control… at least one would hope that’s the case.

Still, the measure gives businesses that would like to implement masking but haven’t because of the headache of dealing with anti-maskers some backup. As we saw in the early stages of the pandemic, it’s easier for businesses point at the city’s mandate rather than ask increasingly combative customers to wear a mask (it was also easier for local governments with limited powers to have the backing of the state).

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