Without city-wide mask rules during COVID outbreak, Anchorage businesses are feeling the pressure


Jen Bersch, owner of Salon DaVinci, has extensive security protocols. She gives no reason to COVID skeptics or anti-masks. (Liz Ruskin / Alaska Public Media)

While rates of COVID-19 cases in Alaska continue to dominate the country, Alaska’s largest city does not have municipal health measures like a mask warrant or collection restrictions in place. This leaves businesses to decide for themselves what preventative measures to take, which can become complicated for owners trying to weigh the health risks of doing business.

Anchorage salon owner Jen Bersch has chosen to create a list of strict COVID precautions. And she said she didn’t plan on lifting them anytime soon.

“How can I start doing things again before?” I don’t want to stop disinfecting between people, because I don’t want to [to catch] whatever people have, ”she said. “And I don’t want to stop hiding!

Bersch has owned the DaVinci Salon in Midtown Anchorage for 14 years. Its pandemic protocol includes a masking requirement for employees and customers, as well as more in-depth disinfection between appointments. Bersch has not abandoned the measures since the start of the pandemic, even as the case rate started to improve in late spring.

“We are right in front of your face, as directly in your breath for at least 30 minutes, if not several hours. So what gives? Your haircut is not more important than my health, ”she said. “And honestly this summer, when the cases went down and this cold was going around, like, I didn’t want that either!”

Now, amid the worst wave of the pandemic, she said the salon has yet to experience a major outbreak – which she says is proof her protocol is working.

A year ago, Anchorage had a city-wide mask mandate, as well as limitations on indoor and outdoor gatherings. The muni had also issued emergency guidelines for businesses to reduce the spread of the virus, such as keeping visitor records, improving ventilation and disinfecting surfaces more frequently.

All of those measures expired in May, just over a month before Dave Bronson became mayor. Last month, in response to the increasingly severe pressure COVID has placed on Anchorage hospitals, the Assembly proposed a new mask mandate. It sparked over a week of heavy public testimony. And Bronson kept his election promise not to impose a mandate.

“Let’s be clear, I am opposed to this ordinance,” he said in a video posted recently on his Facebook page. “I think it is brutal, contrary to the will of the people and businesses of Anchorage and that this is just the latest example of how this House thinks it has to force people to submit by the fear and government sanctions. “

Derrick Green, owner of Waffles and Whatnot in East Anchorage, believes that while masking is effective, the mask requirements are not. It has taken steps to reduce the risk of the spread of COVID, such as providing hand sanitizer and contactless credit card transactions, and installing a ventilation system that is supposed to blow air out of the restaurant every 12 minutes. It provides masks but does not require employees to wear them.

“At this point, everyone is an adult, they are adults. They decide whether they want to wear a mask or not, ”he said.

And they usually don’t, until the restaurant is busy, he said.

Business has taken a hit as the number of cases has worsened, Green said. He has tried to make eating in his restaurant a safer experience, but says convincing diners to mask themselves is a losing battle when they come to eat.

“They’re not going to keep the mask on, they’re going to say ‘I’m drinking.’ We went through this last year and at the end of the day we end up suffering and losing customers,” he said.

University of Alaska Anchorage economist Kevin Berry has said that while some holdouts will likely still refuse to wear a mask, mask warrants reduce the transmission of COVID. A report from the UAA College of Health released in January linked last year’s health mandates to subsequent declines in the case rate in Anchorage.

“We’ve seen this stuff work before, so there doesn’t seem to be a lot of argument, I think, at least at a political level,” Berry said.

Companies implementing their own COVID mitigation measures at all levels are helpful, Berry said. But a patchwork response is not as effective as a city-wide approach.

“It’s much more effective when everyone contributes. And the warrant helps everyone get on board. It also makes it easier for these companies to navigate politically, as they can now use the Assembly as a punching bag, ”Berry said. “So now they can say, ‘Look, I don’t want you to wear a mask. Forrest Dunbar or Chris Constant wants you to wear a mask. And it allows them to do things that they maybe want to do but feel they can’t, these other leaders sort of covering them up.

Siri Moss, general manager of Alaska Rock Gym, said in an email that the gym has a masking requirement for employees, 95% of whom are fully vaccinated. Moss said one of the main reasons for the policy is to protect the large number of children who frequent the building. More than 200 children between the ages of 4 and 17 are enrolled in rock climbing programs, and although Moss said many were vaccinated, children under 12 are not yet eligible to receive the vaccines.

Moss said they did not require masks for adult climbers at the gym to avoid forcing staff to wear police masks. She said these interactions can often become “ugly and unproductive”.

“Our tasks are difficult enough without introducing more stress through confrontational encounters with the public,” she said. “Without state or municipal support, it is difficult to graciously enforce a facility-wide mask mandate. “

Bersch, at the DaVinci Salon, said most clients were happy to comply with his masking requirement, but enforcing the protocol was easier with a warrant.

“People would then assume that you are masking while now it’s like we have to remind people over and over again ‘Remember we are always masking’,” she said.

A city warrant could also have given Bersch some backing recently when a woman who refused to mask herself canceled her haircut on the spot, and then disputed the credit card charges for her appointment deposit. -you.

Bersch ultimately said that whenever the pandemic is brought under control, she knows her little team will go back to the old way of doing things, but for now, they all appreciate the extra layers of protection, although she has to define it. itself the rules.

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