When the Alaska State Legislature convenes in mid-January, lawmakers will be wearing masks — or they’ll be doing the business of the people from their office.
“We’re just trying to make it as safe as possible. I have been surprised to learn how many of our employees as well as legislators have underlying health issues,” said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak and chair of the Legislative Council, in a phone interview. “It’s a serious issue, wearing a mask. There are people who disagree with that, but this is now our policy.”
The council met electronically on Monday to set out rules and guidelines for the upcoming session, assisted by the state’s chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink. The council voted the Safe Floor Session Policy and its enforcement policy in identical 11-1 votes, with Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer, being the sole opposed vote in each case. This will remain the policy unless a future Legislative Council changes it, Stevens said.
“Safe or not safe is always a continuum,” Zink said. “It is by far the clinical consensus at this time that wearing a mask prevents you from spreading or getting the virus that carries COVID-19.”
Measures lined out in the policy include forbidding congregating, remaining seated when speaking, plexiglass dividers being put in place and barring the media from the chambers or galleries to mitigate possible spread of disease.
“We did decide to ask the media not to be on the floor of the House or Senate,” Steven said. “I’m sorry we had to do that. It was the only way we could find the way to do that.”
Additionally, policy states that members of the Legislature who refuse to have their temperature taken or answer health screening questions will be denied entry to the state Capitol. Members who refuse to wear a mask may work in their office but will be barred from the chambers. Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, likened the mask rules to current rules that prevent a man not wearing wearing a necktie from being on the floor of either chamber.
“If you refuse to wear a mask or take a test, you can’t wander the building,” Stevens said. “You can go to your office and work.”
Other accommodations may be made if a legislator refuses to wear a mask.
“Constitutionally, we have to make sure no legislator is excluded from voting. There’s an entirely separate system that’s just for voting. That’s the crucial thing: That people have access to voting,” Stevens said. “The reality of course is that it’s not as perfect as being in-person. But under the circumstances, it’s the best we can do.”
The political body is constitutionally obliged to meet in person, Steven said.
“Constitutionally we can’t meet remotely until we pass a bill. If things are reasonable we’ll probably stay there for 90 days,” Stevens said. “The one thing we have to do is the budget. I believe we should really concentrate on the budget and kick that out as early as possible.”
The Legislature will bring between 200-300 people to Juneau, Stevens said.
“They’re coming from all over the state. Some places it’s pretty good, some places are pretty bad,” Stevens said. “We’re coming into a city that’s been very hospitable to us.”
Stevens said he’s not going to Juneau’s bar, and he’s encouraging those that work for him to abstain as well.
“We have an obligation to Juneau. We want to make sure we’re not inflicting anything on Juneau,” Stevens said. “We’re hoping that people will follow local regulations.”
Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.