Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he is issuing a second disaster emergency declaration to take effect as soon as the current one ends on Nov. 15.
The declaration will last for 30-days during which time a vaccine may be made available, Dunleavy said, and the extension would give state lawmakers time to call themselves into special session and extend the deadline.
The in-effect disaster declaration gives health care providers increased funding and flexibility that has allowed them to better address patient needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Losing those provisions would make providing health care in the state more difficult even as coronavirus cases are expected to rise in the coming weeks, Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital & Nursing Home Association told reporters Friday.
Dunleavy said in a news conference last Friday evening he wanted state lawmakers to have the discussion to call themselves into session to extend the declaration. The governor issued the initial declaration in March, but a governor’s declaration lasts only for 30 days. Lawmakers voted to extend the declaration to Nov. 15 in Senate Bill 241 before adjourning the regular session early due to the pandemic.
Dunleavy’s chief of staff sent Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, and Speaker of the House of Representatives Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, a letter on Oct. 30, asking to poll legislators about their willingness to call themselves into a special session. Giessel and Edgmon replied in a letter stating there was interest in extending the declaration but not the 40 votes necessary for the Legislature to call itself into session. The letter noted the governor had the ability to call a special session on his own and suggested he do so or find other ways to work with the Legislature to extend the declaration.
Legislative leaders met with the governor Friday to discuss extending the declaration, and in a letter released that afternoon, Giessel, Edgmon and Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, said they were encouraged by the conversation.
The statement said House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, was also present at the meeting but was not party to the statement.
However after Dunleavy’s evening news conference announcing his decision to issue a second declaration, Alaska Senate Democrats issued a statement again calling for the governor to call a special session saying his decision to issue a second declaration violated state law.
According to a memo from the Legislative Affairs Agency to lawmakers, the governor cannot declare an emergency for the same disaster twice and the Legislature must meet in order to legally extend the deadline.
“In order to further extend the governor’s March 11, 2020, disaster declaration, the legislature must do so by law,” the memo says. “(State law) is clear the legislature holds the exclusive power to extend a disaster declaration beyond 30 days; therefore, the governor is without authority to unilaterally extend the declaration.”
In a news release Friday, the governor’s office said the second declaration is based upon the determination of moving from the threat of a pandemic to an actual pandemic.
The governor said Friday the discussion to return to Juneau should happen among lawmakers themselves, and that he did not want to order close to 100 people to come to the capital under current COVID-19 conditions.
“The Legislature has indicated they do not currently have the support of their members to call themselves into a special session,” Dunleavy said in the release. “If the Legislature chooses to convene to address this new order, my administration is ready to assist in developing long-term solutions to manage this emergency and protect the public safety and health of Alaskans.”
Following the governor’s announcement, Giessel issued her own statement calling for the governor to call a special session.
“It’s concerning to me that the governor has chosen this far more arbitrary and tenuous course of action. His choice places Alaska communities, healthcare providers, businesses, and citizens in an unstable, unpredictable position,” she said. “If the action is challenged in court, our state security and stability become on trial and in jeopardy.”
Hearing from health care
Earlier Friday, state health officials made a strong plea to the governor and the Legislature to work as fast as possible to extend the disaster emergency declaration for the coronavirus pandemic during a virtual news conference.
“We want you to hear firsthand from hospital leaders about the seriousness of COVID at this time,” Kosin said. “We are setting records for hospitalizations on a weekly, if not daily basis.”
In a Zoom meeting with the press, heads of hospitals from around the state spoke about the challenges they’re currently facing, the surge in cases they believe is soon to come and the provisions within the emergency declaration that allow them greater flexibility to operate during a pandemic.
“Waivers will no longer be available,” said Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation President and CEO Dan Winkelman. “Right now we have a blanket waiver of many of the federal Medicare and Medicaid requirements, including in-person visits. Tele-health would be over.”
Other benefits allowed under the emergency declaration include access to state and federal funding and supplies and flexibility in hiring staff, something which has become crucial for hospitals in the Anchorage area which are seeing a surge of patients.
Coronavirus cases in the state have been rising consistently, and in addition to their calls for the declaration to be extended, hospital leaders called also for a greater adherence to health guidelines, particularly masking. Some hospital leaders said they would like to see the governor issue a statewide mandate for masking while others said that might not be necessary.
“Masks have become politicized, We need Alaskans, our fellow Alaskans, to wear a mask, and we need uniform compliance with that,” said Preston Simmons, CEO of Providence St. Joseph Health Alaska. “Keeping the spread down lets us keep businesses open, we just got to get over the politics and wear the mask.”
At the news conference, Dunleavy said a mandate was not the best way to get people to comply with health regulations and repeatedly asked Alaskans to wear masks whenever they’re in public.
“Like you, I’m tired of this situation, I’m tired of the politicization, I’m tired of reading contradictory information every day, and like you, I don’t like to be told what to do. That’s why I came to Alaska,” Dunleavy said. “But the mathematics will eventually work against us. I’m imploring Alaskans to rethink and re-establish for a little bit of diligence.”
Eventually health workers, law enforcement and military would become infected, the governor said, and in order to avoid that it was important for the public to diligently follow health guidelines in order to limit the spread of the virus, he said.
Friday afternoon there were more than 11,000 active COVID-19 cases in Alaska, and health officials said they were very concerned that number is going to quickly grow and potentially overwhelm the state’s hospitals. A statewide mask mandate would establish a bare minimum of health standards across the state, said Dr. Bob Onders, interim CEO of the Alaska Native Medical Center, and the state’s current patchwork legal framework wasn’t working.
Shelley Ebenal, CEO of Foundation Health Partners Fairbanks, said local leaders in her community had been unwilling to issue any kind of regulation on masking.
“There is a lag of several weeks. The earthquake has hit and the tsunami is on its way, it’s just a matter of will it be a 5-foot wave or a 50-foot wave,” Winkelman said. “None of us want to get into full hospitals two months from now, around Christmas time, and be rationing care.”
Contact reporter Peter Segall at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.