JUNEAU — Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Wednesday the future of Alaska’s COVID-19 response is in the hands of the Alaska Legislature, but if lawmakers do not extend a state of emergency that has assisted vaccine distribution and treatment, he will use all remaining tools to continue to fight the pandemic.
Alaska has been in a COVID-19 emergency since March 2020, but the emergency is set to expire at midnight Sunday morning, and the Legislature appears unlikely to pass a bill extending it. While the state Senate is expected to vote Friday to extend the emergency for 30 days, the state House is tied 20-20, disorganized and unable to act.
Without a state of emergency, Dunleavy said the state will lose some ability to distribute and coordinate COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. The mandatory COVID screening for airline passengers arriving in Alaska would become optional, though testing would still be available.
Earlier in the day, Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum told legislators that his agency is still discovering the implications: On Monday, he learned that the state will lose $8 million per month in federal food stamp aid available only to states with an active COVID emergency.
“If the declaration is not extended, we’re not going to throw up our hands. We’re going to just roll up our sleeves like we have and approach this virus in a science-based, data-based approach,” Dunleavy said by video from the Governor’s Mansion in Juneau.
“Would a declaration assist us? Yes. If there is no declaration, is it going to throw us into chaos? We don’t know, we don’t think so, but certainly, an extension would help the cause.”
The governor pushed back against Alaskans who incorrectly cited school closures and business restrictions as reasons for opposing the disaster declaration. Those actions have been taken by cities and boroughs, not the state.
“I think there’s a misunderstanding that somehow if the state has a declaration, then that’s why certain cities are deploying certain mitigating approaches and restrictions, for example, on businesses,” he said.
Alaska has been in a state of emergency since spring 2020. A Legislature-authorized declaration of emergency expired in November when the Legislature failed to call itself into special session and the governor failed to mandate a special session to renew it.
Instead, the governor issued a series of 30-day disaster declarations in November, December and January that have kept the state in an emergency. At the time, Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, questioned whether those actions infringed upon the Legislature’s power. Now that the Legislature is unable to act because of the deadlocked House, he believes the governor should issue another emergency declaration on his own.
“If the governor does not act to issue a new disaster declaration, he will knowingly place Alaskans’ life, health, and safety at risk,” Begich said in a written statement.
Twenty members of the Alaska House of Representatives signed a letter on Wednesday saying they support the governor’s ability to issue a new disaster declaration.
“But right now, the Legislature is in session,” Dunleavy said. “They are the body that authorizes extensions of emergency declarations such as this, and so long as they’re in session, it’s in their hands. It’s in their ballpark.”