Despite considerable community opposition, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz is undaunted in his decision to use the emergency powers granted to him by the Anchorage Assembly to mandate the wearing of face coverings in most indoor public setting across Anchorage. The order goes into effect Monday, June 29, at 8 a.m.
Face coverings will be mandatory in all grocery stores, pharmacies and retail outlets, as well as restaurants, cafes, bars and breweries. The order also extends to buses and taxies, personal care facilities and communal gatherings. There are no exemptions for religious gatherings, but concessions are made for children and those who have certain health conditions or disabilities.
“I’m sure there are going to be people who do the wrong thing,” Berkowitz said.
“I’m not naïve enough to thing that there is going to be universal compliance,” Berkowitz said during a June 26 briefing on the order. “I am aware enough to know that there are significant members of the community who have philosophical objections to wearing masks, and I understand those philosophical objections. I’m hoping though, that enough people will change their behavior.”
Berkowitz admitted that the mask mandate might not yield the results he’s looking for.
“We have to take precautions even if there is a low probability of a highly impactful event,” he said. “I can’t assess what the exact probability is of COVID spreading widely in our community – more widely than it is.”
“I’m sure there are going to be people who do the wrong thing,” Berkowitz added. “But at the beginning of this entire discussion I said we need to be selfless.”
The order does not apply to children under 12. That goes for day cares and youth camps. Similarly, anyone who has a medical condition or physical or mental situation that makes mask wearing dangerous, does not need to wear one. This applies to those who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as those who have difficulty breathing. Residents who refuse to wear a mask because of any of the above situations, will not be required to produce medical documentation verifying their condition.
“I think you say, no shirt, no mask, no service,” Berkowitz said.
People working out in a gym are also exempt, as are those performing activities that make mask wearing dangerous. Ministers, presenters, musicians and others communicating to an audience will not need to wear masks so long as they practice social distancing.
Businesses are responsible to make sure employees wear masks when in direct contact with customers or other employees, but masks are not required when the only direct contact is between members of the same household or when employees are not within six feet of each other.
In terms of enforcement, employers will not be subject to fines based on non-compliance by customers so long as there is a clearly posted sign informing customers of the mayor’s order. Briefly removing a face covering to eat does not constitute a violation.
If customers refuse to wear masks, Berkowitz advises business owners to hang a sign in the establishment.
“I think you say, no shirt, no mask, no service,” he said. “It’s my hope that we’re not going to have too many people that feel that they have the right to disregard what a mandate is, much less the right to be rude to people who are simply enforcing both a business’s requirement and a city wide order.
“I want to underscore that dealing with this pandemic is not something that is going to be done within a week or a month,” he said.
Berkowitz received strong community push back when he floated his mask mandate at the June 23 Assembly meeting where two local physicians questioned the efficacy of mask wearing. Others said it was a violation of personal freedoms.
When asked what it would take to rescind the mask mandate, the mayor offered no specifics other than to say that we must “dance” with the virus and make decisions as things develop. The mayor’s order expires at the end of July but could be extended.
“I want to underscore that dealing with this pandemic is not something that is going to be done within a week or a month,” he said. “This is a long-term issue that we all have to gird ourselves for. If there are those who say we can ignore it, it will go away, that virus is tireless. We might be tired. It’s not tired.”