Alaska Senate’s first covid hearing was about what you’d expect when it’s run by Sen. Reinbold

Sen. Lora Reinbold wears a plastic face shield during the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 27, 2021.

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While there was plenty of substantive stuff coming from the Legislature on Wednesday, there was really nothing quite like the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing chaired by Eagle River Sen. Lora Reinbold.

Reinbold has spent much of the last year using Facebook to spread doubt and disinformation about the coronavirus, health measures and the vaccine, but she has reserved most of her ire for Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s “tyrannical” (largely toothless to the rest of us) public health order. With a new pulpit courtesy of GOP Senate Majority, Reinbold was ready to hit the ground running to make her case.

It didn’t go exactly as planned. I could write an entire Friday in the Sun about just this meeting but for sanity’s sake, here’s the bullet points: 

  • The opening included a scattershot overview of the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights with parenthetical about how Reinbold felt they applied to the pandemic and the heath orders issued by government. Her favorite, if you’re wondering, is the right to privacy.
  • The featured speaker was one Dr. Martin Kulldorff, a Harvard Medical School professor behind the widely mocked“Great Barrington Declaration” that argues that lockdowns are pointless and we should be pursuing herd immunity. With support from definitely real medical professionals like Professor Spongebob Squarepants, Dr. Wear Themask, Dr. Person Fakename and Real World contestant Johnny Bananas (which is what happens when you seek signatures through an online form, you know exactly how all important health policies are built), Reinbold gave Dr. Kulldorf a free platform to pitch his plan—which hasn’t been working so well in his home country of Sweden—and limited committee members to two questions. It seemed largely in service of proving Reinbold’s point that lockdowns were pointless, never mind Kulldorf’s own admission that flattening the curve to maintain health care capacity and vaccines are an integral part of the plan.
  • Then we were treated to about 10 minutes of Reinbold free riffing on all the public health orders issued by the state and other governments, which she has had her staff collect in 10 thick binders. She seemed particularly scornful of a guidance from the Department of Health and Social Services about how far cars should be parked for drive-in church services and safety measures for putting together giftable Easter Baskets (more on this later). 
  • Reinbold complained several times throughout the meeting that the Dunleavy administration hadn’t made available everyone she wanted—a burn that I thought was reserved for the House Bipartisan Coalition, which saw eight or nine of their covid hearings boycotted last year—but it turns out that when your meeting contains lengthy solo breaks, it doesn’t leave a lot of time in the meeting anyways. Several state officials on the line were never called upon. 
  • We did, however, get to hear from DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum—a man who up until Wednesday had seemed woefully under qualified for the position—who was greeted by Reinbold slamming her fist on one of the binders and telling Crum, “Your name is on almost every single thing in this book.” The administration was clearly prepared and knew what they were walking into, and Crum delivered a thorough if albeit somewhat glossy overview of the state’s efforts to respond to the virus. He even addressed the guidance on church parking and Easter baskets, saying it was produced while working with churches that wanted to be safe during the pandemic. Leave it to Reinbold’s Judiciary Committee to have you saying “Thank God, Adam Crum is here.” He managed to run out the clock on the hearing, leaving only just another break for Reinbold to freestyle on her disappointment with the administration.
  • None of this was what Reinbold wanted to hear and she noted several times that she wanted Crum for a free ranging question and answer session but instead gave him the opportunity to present without interruption (the same opportunity offered to Dr. Squarepants Kulldorf). With time running out on the meeting, Reinbold defiantly asked Crum if he’s sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution and that it’s the supreme law of the land to which he responded “Yes, ma’am, absolutely, I’m an American!” 
  • Reinbold finished the meeting with another riff on her disappointment with Crum, Dunleavy and the whole administration: “You guys have had front and center for 10 months, you’ve had the media, everybody eating out of your hand for the last 10 months. This was and opportunity for question and answer in my committee so I gave you tremendous leeway, next time it will not be this way. … It’s really, really important to never forget what our founding fathers did, what the oppression that they dealt with and what the pilgrims and founding fathers and the oppression they dealt with and what they did to fight and die for the freedoms that we have now and a lot of the freedoms have been very, very much under attack over the last 10 months. It’s a very serious issue and so the public will have an opportunity to talk about the impacts on the unemployment, how many people are unemployed, how many businesses have gone under, the people who have not gotten their screenings, the suffering of the elderly, the suffering of the children. There’s another side to the impacts of what you guys have done.” 
  • Oh, and if you haven’t guessed by now, Reinbold has very serious concerns about the safety of the vaccine that, no joke, she said she’s been monitoring on Facebook: “People need to know if they have the right to say ‘no’ to these vaccinations.” 
    Crum: “Madame Chair, if I may, 100%. Gov. Dunleavy and myself have been very adamanet that the state of alaska does not mandate or require vaccines for employees, staff or seniors. People have that ability, it’s a personal choice.”
    Reinbold: “We’re going to be digging into that at a future date.”

Why it matters: This is a bad look for Reinbold and a bad look for the Senate Majority that has given her this platform.

One legislator told me afterward that this sort of thing can’t keep happening throughout session. Short of removing Reinbold from the committee chairmanship, which would open up a whole other can of worms, I’m not sure how that’s going to happen.

What’s particularly frustrating, though, is that there really are serious constitutional questions about some of the orders as well as how the governor has continued to extend his emergency declaration outside of the law. Those issues deserve an honest, clear-eyed look.

The committee’s lone minority caucus member, Juneau Democratic Sen. Jesse Kiehl said as much during the Senate Democrats’ news conference earlier in the day: “Are we using the least restrictive means to accomplish the public health and safety needs of Alaskans? Now, least-restrictive means has to mean the least-restrictive effective means, but I think when we talk about public health requirements or mandates, when we talk about limitations on private businesses, we need to be very careful.” 

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