Update from editor: While the actual text of Mayor Berkowitz’s latest emergency order makes no mention of churches or religious exemptions, his legal department clarified on July 23 that churches will be allowed to operate under a previous order which permits gatherings of up to 500 people. This is the greatest amount of freedom afforded to any entity under his latest orders.
This becoming a pattern with Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. In imposing his latest emergency order to address COVID-19, the mayor has again treated churches and religious institutions with far greater restrictions than those mandated for bars, bingo halls, theaters, gyms and recreational facilities.
In issuing his 14th mandate on July 22, the mayor lists no scientific evidence supporting the notion that a bingo hall or bar is safer than a church service. The lack of parity is sure to stir more protests from those who see this mayor as eager to curtail First Amendment rights to free assembly and worship while affording entertainment venues much greater freedoms.
According to Berkowitz’s newest order, most indoor gatherings with more than 25 people are prohibited. Most outdoor gatherings involving food or drinks must be limited to 50 people. His order lists several exceptions, but none for religious groups.
The outdoor gathering restrictions do not pertain to farmer’s markets or food-truck events. Likewise, drive-in gatherings are also exempted so long as vehicles are six feet apart (or 10 feet apart if people are singing – i.e. singing hyms and worship songs).
Restaurants, breweries, gyms, bingo halls, theaters and entertainment joints, however, may have up to 50% capacity. So a large workout facility, for example, that holds 1,000 people could legally have 500 people running on treadmills, pumping iron or engaged in yoga classes. Mega churches with the same capacity, though, could only have 25 worshipers in a 1,000-person venue, according to the order. Any more and the church would be in violation of the law and subject to fines.
The mayor’s order restricts bars and nightclubs to 25% capacity.
Additionally, Berkowitz requires that all indoor establishments serving the public in a sit-down setting, appointment or service that last 15 minutes or longer to require all adults to fork over their first and last name, phone number and email address so his government tracers can track them if needed. The information will be kept for “not less than 30 days.”
The mayor’s order, which goes into effect on July 24, is possible because the Anchorage Assembly has extended his emergency powers to deal with COVID-19. There is no expiration date on the mandate.