Legislature to require masks, ban reporters from floor sessions

A four story concrete building
Alaska State Capitol building (left) and Dimond Courthouse. Juneau, Alaska. Jan. 23, 2017. (Skip Gray/360 North)

Alaska lawmakers will be required to wear face masks during floor sessions when they convene in January, under rules that a committee of legislative leaders adopted Monday. 

The joint House-Senate Legislative Council passed a policy outlining how lawmakers will enforce new rules in response to COVID-19.

The council also voted to bar news reporters from floor sessions, as well as to require lawmakers to sit while speaking during floor sessions, to reduce the distance that virus particles could spread. 

Kodiak Republican Senator Gary Stevens chairs the council. He said lawmakers have to protect the people who work for the Legislature. 

“We know the fears that many of our employees have, concerns they have, the questioned health conditions — that they have that we may not even be aware of — that people are concerned about what may happen to them, and are even considering maybe not working for us if they don’t feel safe,” he said.

Under the new policies, lawmakers who refuse to have their temperature checked or to answer health screening questions will be denied entry into the Capitol. Those who refuse to wear face masks will be required to stay in their offices. And those who test positive for the coronavirus will have to quarantine outside the Capitol. 

The policies could be changed once the newly-elected Legislature convenes Jan. 19. Neither the House nor the Senate have agreed on who will lead their chambers. 

Palmer Republican Rep. DeLena Johnson was the only council member to vote against the policies. She says the constituents of legislators who break the rules would be disenfranchised. 

“When we start making exclusions, we have to be very, very, very careful. Especially before — when we’re talking about this Legislature making rules for a Legislature that has not yet formed,” she said.  

Legislative leaders have asked that lawmakers be prioritized in vaccine distribution. But state Chief Medical Officer Doctor Anne Zink said lawmakers may not be in the groups receiving shots before March. 

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Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at akitchenman@alaskapublic.org.

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