Alaska Legislature

Alaska House cancels floor session over COVID-19 worries, delaying debate on punishment for Eastman over Oath Keepers membership

220131 Stutes

JUNEAU — The Alaska House of Representatives canceled a floor session Wednesday after a state legislator tested positive for COVID-19 and the Legislature’s hired contractors were unable to finish contact tracing in time.

At least two members of the state House have confirmed cases of COVID-19, with a third unconfirmed, and there are several other cases active among legislative staff.

“Yesterday, it was determined that roughly half the members (of the House) were close contacts to a positive case,” said Joe Plesha, communications director for the coalition House majority, on Wednesday. “It is still being determined who has to quarantine based on their vaccination status.”

The canceled meeting meant the House was unable to consider disciplinary action against Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla. That action is now on hold until at least Friday.

Eastman is a member of a far-right group the Oath Keepers, and members of the House’s coalition majority have sought to punish him for that membership.

Business in the state Senate proceeded as scheduled Wednesday morning. All 20 senators were present, and Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said he is unaware of any close contacts between senators and someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

A positive test for Rep. Bart LeBon, R-Fairbanks, appeared to be the one that disrupted work in the House. LeBon’s staff confirmed that he had tested positive, and he had been in several in-person meetings Tuesday. Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, tested positive on Monday, she said on social media, but she had been absent from the Capitol for some time.

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Other legislators have previously tested positive, including Reps. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, Zack Fields, D-Anchorage and Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Anchorage, but they completed an isolation period and have returned to the building.

Before the start of this year’s legislative session, Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said that even mild cases of COVID-19 could keep legislators away from debates and votes, disrupting work in the Capitol.

He and others voted to keep a face mask requirement in place within the building, but as implemented, the rules have Balkanized the building.

Face masks are required in the Capitol’s hallways and public spaces, but not in legislators’ offices. Masks are not required on the Capitol’s third floor, where rules are set by the office of Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

If legislators walk across the street to the state courthouse, they’re required to wear masks under rules from the Alaska Court System. Walk to the next-door State Office Building, and there is no mask requirement. Down the street at Juneau City Hall, there is a mask mandate, as there is in the city as a whole.

Even within the Capitol’s masked spaces, enforcement is erratic. Legislators are permitted to remove their masks when they speak in committee and in floor sessions.

House Rules Committee chairman Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said he believes most legislators are vaccinated against COVID-19. Legislative policy requires lawmakers and legislative staff to undergo testing at least every four days.

The Capitol is open to the public for the first time since spring 2020, and visitors are not required to undergo testing.

Some members of the House’s Republican minority speculated that Wednesday’s cancelation was actually due to the House majority’s inability to muster votes.

Edgmon said that’s not the case.

“It’s our responsibility as the leadership in the House to protect our members,” he said, adding that it’s “better to err on the side of caution.”

“All things considered, I think the expectation would be to have full session on Friday,” Edgmon said.

Members of the majority have been debating for weeks about whether to punish Eastman for his membership in the Oath Keepers and have been arguing about what form that punishment should take.

Under the Alaska Constitution’s disloyalty clause, an elected official or state employee is forbidden from joining or aiding “any party or organization or association which advocates, the overthrow by force or violence of the government of the United States or of the State.”

Members of the Oath Keepers, including the group’s leader, have been charged with crimes linked to the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump.

Eastman has not been accused of a crime.

Earlier this week, the House’s committee on committees voted to remove Eastman from legislative committees. Confirming his removal from most committees requires approval by at least 21 members of the 40-person House.

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The House’s coalition majority includes 21 legislators. One of those legislators, Rep. Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiagvik, was absent from the Capitol on Wednesday in order to attend a meeting of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission in Anchorage.


James Brooks

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

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