Thursday marks the Anchorage Assembly’s sixth session scheduled for public testimony on an ordinance that would introduce a mask mandate for the city. Testimony has been heated, with people arrested at meetings and concerns about antisemitic behavior and homophobic remarks.
Alaska Public Media’s Wesley Early has been following the controversy over the proposed mandate. He spoke with “Alaska News Nightly” host Casey Grove about what it’s been like and what may be ahead.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Casey Grove: So, there’s been a lot of interest from the public about this ordinance. What exactly would it do?
Wesley Early: So it would operate a lot like the mandate that was put in place last year by former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz and then extended by the Assembly. It would require that all people over the age of five wear masks in indoor public spaces and communal spaces. There’s some proposed amendments to that, including an exemption for people doing some sort of physical activity like going to the gym or a basketball game. Another pretty controversial amendment would create a procedure for private citizens to report people and businesses for not following the mandate. But the Assembly could also vote to remove that
Casey Grove: Sounds like they’re still ironing things out.
Wesley Early: Well, the Assembly hasn’t been able to debate the ordinance yet because they’re still taking public testimony. There’s been a real strong push from the current Mayor Dave Bronson, who opposes the mandate, as well as some of the more conservative members of the Assembly to encourage people to speak out against the mandate. So, like we’ve seen over the past week, people have been standing in line for hours for the chance to speak. Some supporters of the mandate describe it as filibustering, you know, kind of prolonging this debate to delay a possibility of a vote or of implementing a mask mandate.
Casey Grove: You mentioned in your reporting that the crowd has been kind of rowdy and angry at times. How has that played into the process?
Wesley Early: Yeah, Casey, there’s a lot of people who are very passionate about this issue — framing it as overreach from the government. And every night Assembly chair Suzanne LaFrance has had to ask the crowd to not applaud or to create any distractions. The request is normally met with jeers. And, as you mentioned, opponents to the mask mandate had earlier worn gold Stars of David, sort of equating the situation to the Holocaust. And at the same meeting, a man shouted a homophobic slur at an Assembly member.
Casey Grove: It sounds like that guy was removed. And after some pressure and national exposure, Mayor Bronson eventually agreed with critics that it was wrong to wear the stars. But then there’s the outbursts. Is it unusual for the Assembly to not want people to applaud?
Wesley Early: So the Assembly follows what’s called Robert’s Rules. It’s a set of parliamentary standards to make sure that meetings can be conducted in an efficient manner. It’s like whenever you hear members say, “Through the chair,” before they’re speaking to a point or having to hold several votes to pass a motion. In a lot of ways, the rules make it easier for members who aren’t in the majority to still have a voice. I think that these procedures are kind of new to people who aren’t used to the process and can come off as kind of tedious. I spoke with Municipal Clerk Barbara Jones about it.
Here’s how she put it:
“What happens when people who haven’t been to Assembly meetings before, come to meetings — they aren’t familiar with the agenda, with Robert’s Rules and finding the documents,” she said.
So, she says, there’s precedent for ordinances like this to have a lot of testimony, you know, the equal rights ordinance in 2009 had a similar amount of public input to what we’ve seen so far with the mask mandate. And after the equal rights ordinance was vetoed by then-Mayor Dan Sullivan, it again drew a lot of testimony in 2015. A couple nights of testimony anyway.
Casey Grove: Well, coming up on six nights of testimony for the proposed mask mandate, does it look like the Assembly is close to making a decision or getting to that debate?
Wesley Early: It’s a little up in the air at this point. There’s still going to be testimony on Thursday, Assembly chair LaFrance told me that the Assembly is very limited in terms of what it can do to end public testimony once it’s been opened. And so as long as there’s a line for testimony when the Assembly adjourns each night, it looks like they’ll continue to hear from the public on the issue.
Casey Grove: All right, Wesley, I’m sorry, but your time is up. Thank you for being here though.