Lawmakers vote to require face coverings and COVID-19 screenings in the Capitol

Snow falls on the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau on Feb. 18. (Skip Gray/360 North)

The Alaska Legislative Council voted on late last week to keep the Capitol closed to the public, at least until the next Legislature convenes in January. Legislative staff and the news media will still be allowed in the building.

The council also voted to require that lawmakers, staff members and reporters wear face coverings in the Capitol and legislative offices, and that they be screened for COVID-19 when they enter the Capitol each day.

Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary Stevens, the council chair, said that while the next Legislature could change the policies, he anticipates that as long as pandemic remains a threat, lawmakers would continue with similar policies.

“I think the goal, of course, is to make sure that all legislators, staff feel safe, they feel that coming into the Capitol is a safe place for them to be,” Stevens said in the council meeting.

Stevens said the policies allow the council to prepare for the next session, including hiring a contractor to conduct the screenings.

The council decided against voting on a third policy that would institute a code of conduct that would ask legislators to make every effort to quarantine for 14 days before arriving in Juneau and to arrive with either a negative test result or to get a test upon arrival and to isolate pending results. It would also require legislators and staff to avoid all non-essential trips outside of Juneau during the session. The council plans to consider this policy again before January.

Another proposed change would require lawmakers who want to fund any trips with their state funds to receive approval from each chamber’s presiding officer.

The council voted 9-1 to mandate face coverings and 8-2 to require screenings to enter the Capitol. Palmer Republican Representative DeLena Johnson was the only person to vote against both measures. She said the mask mandate wouldn’t be enforceable against legislators.

“There’s nothing to this,” she said. “This is kind of the worst of the worst. It’s a great suggestion, but it’s not particularly meaningful.”

Stevens suggested that legislators who refuse to wear masks be required to stay in an area enclosed by plexiglass during floor sessions.

Stevens said keeping those who have to be in the Capitol safe means lawmakers can’t return to their pre-pandemic habits.

“If that means if we become heavy-handed and say, ‘Everyone wear a mask,’ I think that’s what we have to do,” he said.

Megan Wallace, the top attorney for the Legislature, said the Legislature could change its rules to allow legislators to attend floor sessions and committee meetings remotely. Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman said it’s important that any change be limited to when lawmakers are unable to attend in person due to the pandemic.

Wallace also said the Legislature could consider rule changes to limit the amount of time spent in floor sessions, or to limit the length of this year’s session.