Masked and screened, Alaska’s lawmakers reconvene to approve pandemic aid

A Superior Court judge declined to immediately halt aid payments.

JUNEAU — Operating under extraordinary circumstances, the Alaska Legislature reconvened on Monday.

Lawmakers, who left Juneau in late March, wore masks and went through public health checkpoints at the doors of the Capitol to invalidate a lawsuit that could block almost $1 billion in coronavirus economic aid.

Masked legislators said they expect to vote Tuesday on a new piece of legislation that would authorize grants for small businesses, aid for municipalities, and money for fishermen.

Last week, a legislative committee approved the final elements of a $1.5 billion plan by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to spend federal coronavirus aid. Two days later, a Juneau man filed suit, saying much of the plan violated the Alaska Constitution.

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The lawsuit said a vote of the full Legislature is needed to authorize the full plan, and attorney Joe Geldhof filed for a preliminary injunction that could temporarily pause the plan.

On Monday, Alaska Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg declined to immediately stop aid payments, saying he wants to first hear from state attorneys.

The state Capitol is across the street from Juneau’s courthouse, and Pallenberg issued his order as lawmakers filed into the building from across Alaska. As they arrived, legislators were greeted by members of Juneau’s fire department, who asked them a series of health questions and took their temperatures.

The screening was funded by the City and Borough of Juneau, and members of the Alaska Committee — a community group devoted to keeping the Capitol in Juneau — hung cloth masks on lawmakers’ office doorknobs.

Under public health rules reviewed by the state’s chief medical officer, members of the public were prohibited from entering the building and lawmakers were required to wear masks.

In the House, everyone wore masks and answered the screening questions. (Two members were excused absent.)

In the Senate, Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, was the only lawmaker who declined to wear a mask and declined screening. (One member was excused absent.)

Reinbold said she believes the dangers of COVID-19 are exaggerated and the benefits of masks are overstated.

“If you’re dealing right with the patients, I understand that. But this is unprecedented. It doesn’t make sense,” she said.

Alaska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, is encouraging Alaskans to wear masks. According to the Coronavirus Tracking Project, 84,640 Americans had died of the disease by Monday afternoon, including 10 Alaskans.

During a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee, some senators followed Reinbold’s lead, removing their masks for discussion.

“At the table today, it’s up to the individual committee members,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka.

In the House, members generally kept their masks on while in hallways and committee masks, then removed them in their offices.

Many in the Legislature wore homemade fabric masks. Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, had one that matched the pattern of her kuspuk. A few lawmakers wore the paper medical masks handed out at the Capitol’s front door.

Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, strapped on a full respirator he bought when he melted lead for fishing lures. After the pandemic began, he bought his wife one too.

The actual business of the day was done comparatively quickly. House and Senate each introduced legislation that would ratify last week’s committee action. The Senate Finance Committee approved the Senate’s version, and the House Rules Committee approved the House’s version, each without making changes.

The bills are scheduled for votes Tuesday morning, and the Senate is also considering a resolution that would allow legislative meetings to be teleconferenced.

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James Brooks

James Brooks was a Juneau-based reporter for the ADN from 2018 to May 2022.