Mayor Ethan Berkowitz tried to explain his leadership decisions during his press briefing on COVID-19 on Friday. He seesawed between calm and reassuring to emotional and angry.
He pleaded. He seethed. He broke down and cried. He said it was a “long eventful week.” There had been protests against his administration. There had been civil disobedience against his mandates.
Berkowitz said the number of coronavirus cases is still too high in Anchorage, and that the city is in a “precarious” place with the virus.
People need to cooperate with the city’s mandates to shut down restaurants. But he could not explain why he didn’t shut down gyms and seafood processing plants, even though he was asked by reporters. He deflected the question to his chief health officer Natasha Pineda, who dodged the question and moved on. It was her last day, anyway, and no reporter would hold the mayor’s feet to the fire on the question of why some businesses are getting special treatment, and why bingo halls are on the shutdown list.
One bright spot for him for the week: Pineda revealed that University of Alaska Anchorage polling shows most Anchorage residents agree with masks and shutdowns.
Berkowitz said he was glad to see that masks are now normal in Anchorage. He said that some people chaffed at first, but now it’s just a normal thing to put a mask on.
“Substantially, almost everybody has started to wear masks,” he said. “That’s making a real difference. That’s making us safer.”
The mayor said more help is on the way financially from the federal government, but failed to explain why his administration is sitting on 85 percent of the CARES Act funds it has already received.
Rather than dispersing it to businesses that are being crushed by regulation, the Berkowitz Administration is hoping to hold onto much of the funds in order to roll out a massive plan for the city’s vagrant population, which will use a combination of federal funds, the new alcohol tax, and proceeds from the sale of the city’s electric utility.
The mayor acknowledged the restaurant/tourism industry has borne the brunt of his closures and that this Tuesday the Assembly would meet to discuss a relief package for the hospitality and tourism sector.
“We’re doing everything we can to make sure that the CARES funds that have been released to the municipality will be disbursed to places where they can do the most good,” he said. The municipality must spend the money before the end of the year or return it, and it cannot receive more funds from the federal government until is begins to let go of what it has. But to date, only 15 percent has been released to help people in Anchorage.
“We’ve already put out more than $1 million to rental and mortgage assistance,” Berkowitz said. The municipality has received over $156 million in CARES funding. “We’ve disbursed already $1 million in business assistance.”
He mentioned another $10 million of assistance for child care providers, for which applications have already started to come in.
Berkowitz also showed anger at misinformation about his relationships with restaurants that seem to receive special favors with street closures so they could set up outdoor dining, and advance notice that restaurant closures were coming, so they could clear out their inventory. His voice shook as he said that his restaurants — Snow City, South, and Spenard Roadhouse — had no special information about the closures.
Must Read Alaska reported last week that Berkowitz has shared business interests with one of the owners of Crush. While he doesn’t own Crush, one of his business partners of his other restaurant entities does own a portion of the wine bar, for whom the city blocked off G Street to set up tents for dining. The city has also blocked off parking next to Snow City Cafe so it could have outdoor seating on Fourth Avenue.
He said it is false that his restaurants had advance notice and that those spreading that information were leaping to the wrong conclusions. He said he was not angry, but disappointed, and that those discussing it online had turned it into a partisan issue.
“What I am gratified by is how much compliance there has been. How the overwhelming number of businesses in this community are doing what’s necessary. I know it’s easy to follow the outliers. They have received a disproportionate amount of publicity for what they are doing,” he said.
He said it has become partisan and that science should matter.
“Those who are politicizing a response to a pandemic are really jeopardizing public health, and they’re also putting our economic wellbeing at great risk. And they ought to be held accountable for it,” he said.
Then he expressed anger at the nation:
“You look across the world and we are a laggard in terms of our ability to deal with this pandemic. You know, this is the United States of America, and we’re supposed to be a leader. We put a man on the moon. We solved all kinds of problems. And we’re behaving almost like a a failed state here. And that is the result of people injecting politics into what should be a rational decision.”
Almost all of the businesses are complying with AO-15, the mayor said. As for Kriner’s Diner and other restaurants who are defying him, he said it was a heavy day for him, but the law has to apply to everybody.
“There is no joy in this decision,” he said. “I’m hoping with concerted effort this community can work harder to bring the numbers down so we can get to a position where we can relax some of these restrictions.”
Berkowitz didn’t say what the acceptable target is for allowing restaurants and bars to reopen, and no reporter asked him to be more specific on how many cases of COVID-19 are acceptable.
As for next steps on Kriner’s Diner, he turned that question over to Kate Vogel, his municipal attorney, who indicated the city will take a harsh position against Kriner’s, should the restaurant persist in remaining open.
One reporter pitched a softball question to Berkowitz about how his children are doing. He paused for a long time, and worked to compose himself as he said it has been hard to have his children hear things about him that are not true. His voice broke.
“The virus poses a lethal threat to all of us,” Berkowitz said.