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    Despite public defiance, Berkowitz set to mandate masks across Anchorage

    AlaskaWatchman.com

    After the Anchorage Assembly twice refused to order residents to wear masks, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz has decided to take matters into his own hands and use his ongoing emergency powers to demand mask wearing across the municipality.

    Joan Priestly holds mask
    Dr. Joan Priestley holds up a mask during the June 23 Anchorage Assembly meeting.

    “There is disregard for some of the public health measures that have kept us safe to this point,” he charged at the June 23 Assembly meeting. “I think the presence of an order is an indicator of what social norms are and should be, and consequently we’re –  or I’m – prepared to implement that order within the next few days.”

    Berkowitz’s power to issue emergency orders to address COVID-19 has been repeatedly extended by the Anchorage Assembly. It gives him broad freedoms to enact laws without going through the public process.

    Berkowitz said his mask mandate plan is essential due to rising COVID-19 case counts and concerns about available hospital beds and personal protective equipment. He’s also worried about the ability to trace and track people who come in contact with the virus.

    The mayor did not provide specific data or details on why he believes a mask mandate is urgent. With a population of 291,000, Anchorage, as of June 26, had only 152 active COVID-19 cases and just five current hospitalizations due to the virus. The municipality also appears well stocked in terms of hospital equipment. It has 816 inpatient beds available, along with 319 ventilators, 113 ICU beds and 32 ventilators.

    Several individuals spoke about how hard it was to breath with a mask on, and the fact that oxygen levels go down while masked.

    Assembly Member Jaimie Allard (the only member not wearing a mask at the meeting) asked the mayor where his concerning data comes from. Is it strictly based off Anchorage or was he using statewide numbers?

    Margaret Anderson holds mask
    Margaret Anderson holds a mask as she speaks during the June 23 Anchorage Assembly meeting.

    Berkowitz shot back: “Both in the municipality and statewide and nationwide. And if you want to know – globally as well.”

    Following Berkowitz’s mask announcement, the Assembly held a lengthy public comment period in which most testimonies emphatically opposed the mayor’s plan.

    Before testimony began Assembly Chair Felix Rivera reminded the audience, many of whom were barefaced, to put on masks while in the Assembly Chambers. His warning fell on deaf ears as the line of mostly maskless testifiers expressed displeasure with the mayor.

    Several individuals spoke about how hard it was to breath with a mask on, and the fact that oxygen levels go down while masked.

    “I’ve put these masks on and I’ve had allergic reactions,” Margaret Anderson said as she held a mask for the mayor and Assembly to see. “So then I went to cloth masks and I almost passed out a couple of times.”

    “Here’s my first act of civil disobedience,” she said. “I will not wear a mask!”

    Berkowitz responded, saying he wouldn’t require those with breathing difficulties to wear a mask.

    Dr. Joan Priestley, a retired Anchorage doctor with current medical license, called the whole idea “ludicrous.”

    “The virus can enter through any orifice. So we need another resolution demanding that people wear goggles at all times because the eyes are a known route of transmission,” she said facetiously. “Even through the ear canal. So we need another resolution that people must wear earmuffs at all times, even indoors. Where does this stop?”

    Priestly concluded by waving a mask at the mayor.

    “Here’s my first act of civil disobedience,” she said. “I will not wear a mask!”

    Repeated audience applause concerned Rivera who asked, to no avail, that people “skip the clapping” after testimonies.

    “It is a freedom issue,” Valentine added. “It is an issue of what I do with my own body.”

    Rosalind Griffin, who said Mayor Berkowitz is her neighbor, called the mask mandate hypocritical.

    “He does not wear a mask,” she said, pointing to the mayor. “I see him on the street all the time on his phone, talking to neighbors without a mask. I will not wear a mask, based on what I see. He sets the example. Don’t put into law what you’re not doing at home.” (Click here to watch Griffin’s testimony.)

    More clapping ensued.

    Kay Valentine expressed concern that a mask mandate will only heighten growing community tensions.

    “Mask shaming is a real thing,” she said. “And a mandate would give supporters of face coverings validation to verbally attack adults and children who are not able to wear them.”

    “It is a freedom issue,” Valentine added. “It is an issue of what I do with my own body.”

    Several people, including Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Anchorage, questioned the effectiveness of masks and cited conflicting studies.

    Dr. Shawn Degler, an anesthesiologist at Alaska Regional Hospital, said the mayor’s mask mandate is an overstep.

    “COVID-19 is not destroying our city by disease, but instead by the preventative policies that have been installed but are not longer needed,” he said. “With such low mortality numbers, this Assembly cannot justify lengthening emergency powers for the mayor, and definitely cannot support mandating public masking.”

    He made a comparison to car accidents.

    “Automobile related deaths have been reduced in 2020 as well, likely due to lockdown,” Degler noted. “Motor vehicle accidents are significantly a public health problem. You could use the same logic and say, ‘Okay, from now on there is not nighttime driving, except for essential workers. Death rates would fall. Less innocent people would die, but freedom would die as well.’”

    Assembly members remained largely quiet on the mayor’s plan, but Assembly women Jaimie Allard emphatically opposed the idea.

    Three people briefly spoke in favor of mask wearing but were vastly outnumbered by opponents.

    Assembly members remained largely quiet on the mayor’s plan, but Assembly women Jaimie Allard emphatically opposed the idea.

    “This is not my job to tell people what they should do with their health. It’s my job to make sure your individual rights are protected,” she said. “If you don’t want to wear a mask that’s fine.”

    Click here to support the Alaska Watchman.

    Joel Davidson
    Joel Davidson
    Joel is Editor-in-Chief of the Alaska Watchman. Joel is an award winning journalist and has been reporting for over 20 years, He is a proud father of 8 children, and lives in Palmer, Alaska.

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