Legislature to require masks, bar reporters from floor sessions

A hand sanitizer dispenser stands outside Senate Chambers in the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau on March 10, 2020. It’s one of many in the legislative floors of the Capitol.
A hand sanitizer dispenser stands outside Senate Chambers in the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau on March 10. On Monday, the Legislative Council voted to require that lawmakers wear facemasks when the Legislature convenes in January. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)

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

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

The council also voted to bar news reporters from floor sessions and to require lawmakers to sit when they speak during floor sessions, to reduce the distance that virus particles could spread. 

Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary Stevens, the council chair, said lawmakers have to protect the people who work for the Legislature. 

“We know the fears that many of our employees have,” Stevens said, noting that employees may have health conditions that legislators aren’t aware of. “People are concerned about what may happen to them and are even considering maybe not working for us if they don’t feel safe.”

The policies could be changed once the newly elected Legislature convenes on 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, which passed 11-1. She said the constituents of legislators who break the rules would be disenfranchised. 

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

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 facemasks will be required to stay in their offices. And those who test positive for the coronavirus will have to quarantine outside of the Capitol. 

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

Andrew Kitchenman

State Government Reporter, Alaska Public Media & KTOO

State government plays an outsized role in the life of Alaskans. As the state continues to go through the painful process of deciding what its priorities are, I bring Alaskans to the scene of a government in transition.

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