COVID-19 outbreak in Alaska Capitol affects legislative work

JUNEAU — The Alaska State Capitol has been hit by an ongoing coronavirus outbreak, but there are no plans to close the building to the public or to reimplement masking and testing requirements.

In recent weeks, the virus has spread among legislators and staff, impacting some legislative work. A scheduled House floor session Friday was converted to a technical session, meaning no bills could be introduced or discussed. A technical session fulfills the Legislature’s requirement for the House and Senate to convene at least once every three days.

House Speaker Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, said multiple legislators have been out sick with the virus and holding a brief technical session made more sense, although several legislators had indicated that they wouldn’t attend the floor session unrelated to COVID-19, she said.

At least one committee hearing has been canceled due to COVID-19. Wasilla Republican Rep. Jesse Sumner confirmed that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and canceled a House Labor and Commerce Committee hearing scheduled for Friday afternoon.

In 2020, as the pandemic gained steam, the Capitol was closed to the public for over a year. Masking and testing were both mandatory at times, and legislators sat at desks in the House and Senate chambers surrounded by plexiglass. Last year, high case counts threatened progress on the budget, and there were heated fights over masking and other mitigation measures.

Members of House and Senate leadership said there is no interest in reimplementing COVID-19 mandates or closing the building to the public. Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski said much more is known about coronavirus now and that it is here to stay.

A COVID-19 policy adopted by the Legislature last year remains in effect. Legislators and staff who test positive for the virus have been told to stay home for five days and to notify their own close contacts. Masking can be mandated in legislative offices, but that is optional. Rapid antigen tests are available free for legislators, legislative aides and credentialed members of the media.


The Legislative Affairs Agency, which is in charge of logistical support in the Capitol, is no longer tracking COVID-19 cases to the extent it was last year, when a private contractor was conducting testing. Jessica Geary, the agency’s executive director, said it’s now a matter of personal responsibility.

The Senate Finance Committee announced its own mitigation policy Friday. Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Bethel Democrat, said members and staff would need to test for COVID-19 once a week on Mondays.

Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman said there are too many cases in the building, and he was concerned that the committee’s work on the budget and other legislation could be halted if the virus continues to spread.

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Sean Maguire

Sean Maguire is a politics and general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Juneau. He previously reported from Juneau for Alaska's News Source. Contact him at smaguire@adn.com.