For the past week, promising progress on the state budget ground to a halt in the Capitol Building amid a standoff over a mask requirement on the House floor. House Speaker Louise Stutes refused to hold a floor session until all legislators and staff present were masked, and a few holdout legislators in the Republican minority caucus refused to do so.
Stutes’ action came amid a legislative COVID-19 outbreak among lawmakers and staff. As of Thursday, nearly three dozen cases had been recorded in the Capitol, throwing a monkey wrench into what was already a fraught deliberation over state spending plans and other important legislation. Four House members, Democrats and Republicans alike, were out sick, and a similar number of minority members refused Stutes’ mask edict.
To be clear, there’s more going on here than a simple health measure. Two members of Stutes’ bare-majority caucus were quarantining with COVID and unable to attend floor sessions. That meant the House Majority’s ability to pass legislation along caucus lines — which, these days, has often been the only way bills pass at all — was no longer operative. The solution enacted by Speaker Stutes: use a new mask mandate as an excuse to cancel House floor sessions last week. For their part, minority caucus members have demonstrated repeatedly that they’re all too happy to gum up the works however they can, and if it means flouting a mask mandate, so much the better.
But those political considerations just go to show why many Alaskans have become disenchanted with legislators’ inability, or at least unwillingness, to do their jobs. COVID-19 notwithstanding, we need a budget passed, and last year legislators nearly caused Alaska’s first-ever government shutdown before they managed it.
Worse, legislators’ risk tolerance for COVID-19 changes conveniently depending on circumstances. Although some lawmakers and their staff are scrupulous about masking in the Capitol, others are not, whether elsewhere in the Capitol or when they’re socializing after hours — including, reportedly, Speaker Stutes herself. It’s disingenuous to stake out the moral high ground on the clock, then eat and drink at restaurants and bars in the evening as though the pandemic is no longer a concern. It’s precisely this hypocrisy that has caused many to write off the latest House mask mandate as just more COVID-19 theatrics.
The fact of the matter is that unless lawmakers suddenly decide to enact building-wide health measures for all legislators and staff, the enactment of a mask mandate in a single room for one of the Legislature’s two bodies, offers no real protection from virus spread. If Rep. Stutes feels strongly that such a mandate is necessary, she should make that case to the Legislative Council, which is responsible for Capitol-wide health measures. If that proves a bridge too far, the House should get back to doing the people’s business.
At this point in the pandemic, it’s time for state government to follow the example of the private sector and learn to function despite COVID-19, rather than stopping their vital work in order to argue about masks. Legislators are all responsible adults who can make their own risk assessments.
Lawmakers who have done their utmost to be safe are vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19. N95 masks further reduce their risk of contracting the disease. Therefore, the risk unmasked and/or unvaccinated legislators are creating is mostly for themselves. The harm from legislation grinding to a halt and wasting precious time that could be spent hammering out Alaska’s operating budget is greater than from the refusal of a few minority legislators to wear their masks.