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Alaska leaders say governor's mask advice beyond their power

Last Updated Nov 3, 2020 at 11:12 am EST

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Alaska’s governor said imposing mask mandates to stem the spread of the coronavirus should be implemented by local governments, but some municipal leaders argue they do not have the power.

Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy has resisted imposing a statewide mask mandate despite to slow increases in the number of new COVID-19 cases, Alaska Public Media reported Saturday.

Some Alaska cities have adopted mask mandates, including Anchorage, Juneau, Dillingham and Cordova. But as cases spiked last week, Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink said the virus spread fastest in the Matanuska-Susitna and Kenai Peninsula boroughs, which have not mandated masks.

Kenai Peninsula and Matanuska-Susitna municipal officials have said they lack the legal power to issue mask requirements.

Dunleavy said last week that mask mandates are “best done at the local level” instead of statewide. State attorneys have a different interpretation of Alaska law and local mandates would hold up in court, he said.

“Individual communities can do that. We would support that,” Dunleavy said.

“Home rule” municipalities including Anchorage, Juneau and Cordova can exercise powers not explicitly barred by the Alaska Legislature, said Nils Andreassen, executive director of the Alaska Municipal League.

But “second class boroughs” like the Kenai Peninsula, Matanuska-Susitna and Fairbanks North Star boroughs only have powers the state explicitly grants them, although they can add powers through resident votes, Andreassen said.

Home rule municipalities subsequently have firmer legal ground to impose mask requirements, while other boroughs are wary of the potential risks and costs of lawsuits challenging mandates.

“When the risk is litigation, you’re more likely to avoid taking the risk. And that’s the situation that many municipalities might find themselves in,” Andreassen said. “There’s a big question mark of what powers they might have or could exercise.”

Certain cities have stronger powers to impose mask requirements than surrounding boroughs. Fairbanks Mayor Jim Matherly said he is reticent to require masks because commerce could be driven to communities just outside the municipality’s boundaries.

Dunleavy’s administration said state law explicitly grants “disaster powers” to local governments allowing them to mandate masks.

While second class boroughs cannot exercise “health powers” like licensing and facility safety inspections, they can take actions like mask mandates to respond to disasters, “even if the disaster is a health-related disaster,” administration spokesman Corey Allen Young said.

The Associated Press