Alaska is reopening the economy, but protesters took to the streets of Anchorage anyway

Cars wait in line to enter the parking lot at the Loussac Library on Wednesday. (Lex Treinen / Alaska Public Media)

City and state officials announced they were relaxing regulations on businesses, but hundreds of “OpenAlaska” protesters took to the streets of Anchorage in their vehicles on Wednesday anyway for an event meant push lawmakers to speed up the reopening of the economy.

Vehicles gathered at the Loussac Library around noon before embarking on a pre-planned route through midtown and downtown Anchorage.

“We’re all in a bad situation right now, but we all want the best for everybody, but we want our lives to get back to normal,” said Connor Gibbs, who said he’s lost most of his real estate work during the pandemic.

Horns honked, flags that said “Don’t Tread on Me” waved, and vehicles idled, painted with slogans like “Shrink government, open business.” In all, it took about 30 minutes for the vehicles to snake out of the parking lot and make their way onto A Street.

Both state and local leaders have already announced plans for a phased reopening of Alaska’s economy. State directives allow restaurants, personal care and other businesses to open as soon as Friday. Anchorage will allow those businesses to open on Monday, and is scrambling to develop safety protocols for workers. Despite just a three-day difference between the state and local plans, many attendees said they don’t think the mayor is listening to the group’s demands.

“I think the governor has done a good job taking some precautions, but having a mayor that’s having us hunker down in our home, that crosses the line,” said Senator Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River.

In a written reaction to the OpenAlaska protest, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz wrote that “To the extent that their sole goal is to reopen Anchorage, I am supportive [of OpenAlaska] – but on a timeline that minimizes the risk of COVID to the public and to the businesses that call the Municipality home.”

Anxiety about getting back to work was real among protesters, many of whom work for small businesses around Anchorage. Francis Hubbard sat in a company van with the logo of the commercial cleaning business he works for on the side. He said his employer was also at the rally, and that the shutdowns have been difficult.

“When the quarantine first happened, my job dropped dramatically, and most of my stuff — I do commission-based work — so if there’s no work, I’m not even really getting paid,” he said.

Hubbard says he’s been able to use vacation days and hasn’t filed for unemployment, but it’s been hard on himself and his family. His goals aren’t all that different from the governor’s or mayor’s.

“I know certain places shouldn’t be fully opened up yet, but definitely slowly starting to open things back up so we can get the economy open,” he said.

There was also an underlying sense among protesters that essential civil liberties were being denied because of the health directives. Taxidermist Roy Whichers said that he sees the coronavirus restrictions as part of a decades-long process.

“The government’s taken one right at a time, and people didn’t notice. If they’d taken all our rights at once, we’d be in a revolution, but no, one little thing at a time and slowly but surely, now we’re here,” he said.

Many people mentioned what they felt were violations of the Constitution — closing down church services and interfering with private property by shutting down businesses. Many acknowledged that the emergency curtailment of civil liberties was acceptable, but only in the case of a threat from a foreign adversary, not a deadly pandemic.

Reinbold answered questions in between helping other drivers paint slogans on their vehicles. She didn’t wear a mask or gloves as she passed the paint stick to other attendees.

“No science has proved to me that you need to wear a mask outside,” she said.

She said most politicians aren’t taking into account the fact that all actions carry certain risks.

“I think that there is a time and a place if we’re in imminent danger of an invasion or something like that. This is an invisible enemy, it is real, however, there is lots and lots of risk-benefits in life,” she said.

Alaska Public Media

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