ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The mayor of Alaska's largest city apologized Thursday for his comments supporting some residents' use of Holocaust imagery to liken a proposed citywide mask mandate to the oppression of Jewish people in Nazi Germany.
Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson has said he staunchly opposes the proposal and initially defended the use of yellow Stars of David worn by other critics this week at heated public hearings. Such imagery has been used by opponents of mask and vaccine mandates across the U.S., drawing condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations.
The proposal before the Anchorage Assembly would require people to wear masks in indoor public spaces and outdoors at large events. If approved as written, businesses and building owners would be required to deny entry to people not wearing masks, though there are exceptions for small children and some others.
It comes as Alaska experiences a spike in coronavirus cases. The state has seen a 42% increase in newly confirmed COVID-19 cases over last week, officials said, and its largest hospital has declared crisis standards that allow the overwhelmed facility to modify its normal levels of care.
The mask proposal has provoked a strong response.
Four people were arrested during a Wednesday assembly hearing on the measure, two for disorderly conduct and two for trespassing. One also faces a weapons misconduct charge for allegedly carrying a concealed gun, Anchorage Police Sgt. Ken Bushue told the Anchorage Daily News.
Anchorage instituted mask mandates under two different mayoral administrations. But Bronson was elected in May after pledging not to enact mask mandates.
During a Tuesday assembly meeting, he said the proposed mask mandate is “reckless and ill conceived.”
“I oppose this ordinance because it is based on inconclusive science, because it is bad policy, and because it is an unconstitutional infringement on the freedom guaranteed to every Anchorage citizen by our federal and state constitutions,” Bronson said. “But most of all, I oppose this ordinance because it pits neighbor against neighbor, shop owner against customer and friend against friend.”
At a hearing the next day, he defended the use of the yellow stars, with the words “Do not comply,” worn by some attendees opposing the mask mandate.
Christine Hill, who twice ran unsuccessfully for the assembly, printed out the stars at home and handed them out for others to wear to draw a comparison to the oppression and genocide of Jewish people in Nazi Germany.
“We’re going down that same road, what’s happening now, taking more and more of our freedom away. And that’s what’s happening. That’s what’s frightening,” Hill said.
Assembly member Forrest Dunbar, who is Jewish and lost to Bronson in the mayoral race, decried the use of the Star of David, reading a letter he received from his rabbi, Abram Goodstein.
“It was heart-wrenching for me when I noticed individuals were wearing yellow Stars of David, mimicking my Jewish ancestors who perished during the Holocaust,” Dunbar read, quoting Goodstein.
“For myself and most Jews, seeing the yellow Star of David on someone’s chest elicits the same feeling as seeing a swastika on a flag or the SS insignia on a uniform," the letter said. "I believe it is a constitutional right to protest for your values. But I request that you do not use symbols that diminish the 6 million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust.”
During his comments on the subject Wednesday, Bronson said: “There was a formal message that came out within Jewish culture about that, and the message was, ‘Never again.’ That’s an ethos. And that’s what that star really means is, ‘We will not forget, this will never happen again.’ And I think us borrowing that from them is actually a credit to them.”
On Thursday, the mayor issued a statement apologizing for his remarks.
“I understand that we should not trivialize or compare what happened during the Holocaust to a mask mandate, and I want to apologize for any perception that my statements support or compare what happened to the Jewish people in Nazi Germany,” Bronson said.
Many in the crowd testified against the mask mandate.
Others called into the meeting expressing support for the proposal, citing rising case numbers and overburdened hospitals. They included Dr. Tom Hennessy, who specializes in public health and preventative medicine at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“There’s clear and convincing evidence that the use of facial masks and mask mandates in public settings reduces transmission and deaths from COVID-19. We know this from laboratory studies and real world evaluation of mask policies,” Hennessy said.
The hearing was scheduled to continue Thursday. Bronson could issue a veto on the proposal, but the assembly has the authority to override it.