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Alaska Legislature

Alaska’s Capitol may forbid public access because of coronavirus when lawmakers reconvene in January

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: October 31, 2020
  • Published October 29, 2020

The statue of William Henry Seward wears a cloth mask in front of the Alaska State Capitol on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (James Brooks / ADN)

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, a panel of state lawmakers voted Thursday to ban the public from in-person proceedings in the Alaska State Capitol when the 32nd Alaska Legislature convenes in January.

“At this point, what we’re planning is that only legislators, staff and media will be in that building,” said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak and chairman of the joint House-Senate Legislative Council, which makes decisions for the Legislature while lawmakers are not in session.

A similar restriction was in place before the Legislature adjourned in May, and Thursday’s decision is subject to approval by next year’s legislators.

Stevens said that if the COVID-19 pandemic abates, future lawmakers could also lift the ban.

Alaskans will be able to follow proceedings on TV and through the streaming videos of Gavel Alaska, a public-access program operated by Juneau’s public radio and TV station.

Thursday’s decision also requires people to wear face masks or face shields while in legislative buildings, including the legislative information offices located across the state.

“No legislator can travel without wearing a mask on an airplane, so what would the objection be to wearing a mask on the floor?" Stevens said during Thursday’s meeting.

The Legislative Council considered, but did not adopt, rules for teleconferenced legislative sessions.

“The (Alaska) Constitution requires us to meet in person, so even if things go to hell in a handbasket … we have to meet in person to decide to meet at a distance,” Stevens said.

[Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Thursday’s decision is subject to approval by next year’s lawmakers.]