Budget work at Alaska House delayed as COVID cases surge, caucuses differ on masks

State Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, leaves the House floor after being sworn in on Jan. 19, 2021, in Juneau. On Wednesday, Stutes said she reinstituted a mask mandate on the House floor in order to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Twenty-six people who work in the Capitol are active cases. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Twenty-six people who work in the Capitol have been reported as active cases of COVID-19, including four or five legislators, according to House Speaker Louise Stutes. 

Stutes, a Kodiak Republican, has imposed a requirement that House members wear masks during floor sessions. But three members — Republican Reps. Ben Carpenter of Niksiki, David Eastman of Wasilla and Christopher Kurka of Wasilla —  have refused to do that, and as a result, Stutes hasn’t allowed the House to hold a full session all week. 

The Legislative Council has not re-introduced a mask requirement for the entire Capitol. On Feb. 23, the council dropped mask and testing requirements for those who work in the building. 

Stutes said she is doing what she can to minimize the spread of the virus.

“Masking may not be the end-all to everything,” she said. “But it certainly is helpful. It’s one of the many things you can do.”

Stutes said she had been clear when she dropped a mask requirement earlier this year that she would bring it back if there was a cluster of cases. 

“We’re stymied because a few people have determined that we’re violating their civil and personal rights by asking them to wear a mask,” she said. 

In a statement Tuesday, the Republican House minority caucus described canceling floor sessions as “a result of fear and virtue-signaling.” The caucus said it was present and ready to work. 

“We do not want the people’s business to be thwarted due to obvious delay tactics,” the statement said.

Stutes said she plans to resume work on the state budget on Monday, in the hope that the peak in cases would have crested by then. She said the House will meet each day as it finishes work on the budget. 

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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