The legislative panel responsible for overseeing the rules for the Alaska Capitol voted to maintain last session’s masking mandate in shared spaces and regular covid-19 testing requirement for legislators and legislative staff.
In a hearing this morning—the day before the start of the 2022 legislative session—the Legislative Council rejected conservative Republican members’ proposals to make both masking and testing optional. Both proposals were defeated on a bipartisan basis with Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans citing the Omicron surge as reason to play it safe, at least for now.
“It seems like absolutely the wrong time to do this,” said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak. “Maybe later, if things change, but not now.”
Even Rep. Chris Tuck, an Anchorage Democrat who’s been generally opposed to mandatory masking, said he’d rather take some minor precautions to keep the building open to the public and legislative business running.
“What’s going to happen to our session if we ended up with such an outbreak?” Tuck said. “I made it through covid this last October but it’s not to say that if omicron does hit pretty hard here at the capitol many of our staff and many of our legislators are going to probably be crippled from doing their business.”
Others noted that while legislators may be willing to take individual risks, such as holding mask-less meeting legislators’ offices (where the rules don’t reach) or socializing outside of the capitol, they shouldn’t be putting legislative staff in a risky position at their workplace. Several also noted that the council could revisit things when cases decline and the risk goes down.
Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, and Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, were the strongest proponents for rolling back the rules. Reinbold infamously feuded with the Legislature’s covid-19 precautions last year, was temporarily excluded from regular Senate business and was ultimately banned from flying on Alaska Airlines. Reinbold said she believed everyone in the Legislature is either already vaccinated or already had covid-19. Tilton questioned whether there really is any science supporting masks (when presented with such evidence at the council’s last meeting by a trusted epidemiologist, she told them it was just their opinion).
Ultimately only Reinbold, Tilton and Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, voted in favor of repealing the masking mandate. Voting against the repeal were Reps. Claman, Edgmon, Foster, Stutes, Tuck and Hannan as well as Sens. Bishop, Hoffman, Stedman and Stevens.
Things were a little more contentious when it came to rolling back the building’s mandate that legislators and legislative staff are tested every four days. Tuck joined the Reinbold, Tilton and Micciche in voting for the repeal of the testing, arguing that masking and mutual trust ought to be sufficient protections.
Reinbold called the testing requirement—which she refused to follow during last year’s session, one of the factors that led to her exclusion to the Senate—was “completely unjustified from a scientific, from a medical, from a reasonable and from a legal perspective.”
At that point, patience was already wearing thin for Reinbold. Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, noted Reinbold could just invoke her constitutional right to attend session and ignore the rules like she’s already been doing.
“Nobody here expects Sen. Reinbold to do any testing. We expect her to exercise her constitutional rights and enter the building in any way she wants,” he said. “It’s time to vote. If she’s got the votes, she’s got the votes and if not, she doesn’t. Let’s move on.”
The committee voted to reject the testing proposal on a 9N-4Y margin.