Dunleavy rolls the dice on pandemic by allowing disaster declaration to run out

Gov. Mike Dunleavy discusses the state taking a step back with the pandemic recovery during a briefing on Sunday Feb. 14, 2021.

“Would a declaration assist us? Yes. If there is no declaration, is it going to throw us into chaos?” said Gov. Mike Dunleavy during a news conference last week as it appeared certain that the Legislature would be unable to pass a fully legal extension of the state’s disaster declaration by the Sunday deadline. “We don’t know, we don’t think so, but certainly, an extension would help the cause.”

Facing too many hurdles to passing that extension, more than half of the Alaska Legislature (35 in the House and 11 in the Senate) took the unprecedented step of calling on the governor to unilaterally extend the disaster declaration as he had already done three times before.

“Please, for God’s sake, let’s tell the governor that we need him to create a new order,” said Senate President Peter Micciche in another rare moment, having handed over the gavel to Majority Leader Shelley Hughes so he could speak directly on the resolution passed by the Senate on Friday.

Over in the House, 35 of the 40 representatives signed onto letters supporting the governor acting where the Legislature couldn’t. Hospitals, health care providers, local governments, businesses and individuals also joined in calling on the governor to extend the disaster declaration instead of diving into the multitude of unknowns created by the hasty end of the disaster declaration.

Sunday came and went without a new disaster declaration, making Alaska just the second state in the nation to shelve the disaster and with it the many emergency powers that were important in managing the pandemic, the outbreaks, the vaccination process and the economic fallout.

“We feel confident that even without the declaration, that the tools we have in place, the systems are in place … we believe that we have what we need right now to get through this,” Dunleavy said on Sunday.

Yes, the governor’s unilateral extension of the disaster declaration would have been outside state law but so too were the three previous extensions of the declaration. And, yes, the Legislature’s attorneys said the latest extension, like the previous three, would be on shaky legal footing if challenged in court but that’s a big if. As for the expiration of the disaster declaration and what it means for the state, what was known heading into the weekend is that we really don’t know.

“Very firmly, we do not know,” Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum told the Senate Labor and Commerce during a hearing last week where he implored the Senate not to roll the dice. “We are running out of time here.”

So far, we know that the state’s mandate requiring testing and quarantines for people traveling to Alaska is now voluntary, erasing one of the most effective ways to monitor and track the virus—and its mutations—as they arrive in the geographically isolated 49th state. Also gone is $8 million in boosted monthly federal support for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program once March begins.

It’s unclear how the state’s rollout of the vaccination program and its prioritization system, which was expanded to include K-12 teachers last week, will be impacted as the state’s role in directing the scarce resources diminishes. Alaska has so far led the nation in vaccinating its population.

Hospital directors and business leaders told legislators that uncertainty is the last thing the pandemic needs right now. That a patchwork of local mandates in place of an absent state effort would complicate the response and the recovery. While state officials pledged to keep working no matter what, it was clear that no one wanted to find out what would happen.

Instead, Dunleavy allowed the declaration to expire and on Sunday sought to signal confidence about the path ahead, calling it a “path to normalcy.” It would more confidence-inspiring if it didn’t contradict the dire warnings of his own administration who had been working through the week to urge legislators into action.

It’s a bet that Alaska’s generally promising trends, declining case counts, relatively few deaths and fast vaccination rate will keep up without the state’s disaster powers. A bet that we won’t experience a new outbreak fueled by a more contagious strain of the virus. A bet that if anything does happen, that the Legislature will be able to do what it hasn’t been able to do and respond quickly.

Ultimately, it might be a bet that he wins but it’s a bet that no one except a the most ardent of covid deniers wanted to take.

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