Alaska Legislature

Alaska lawmakers decline mandates amid COVID outbreak, raising questions about further disruption

JUNEAU — The Alaska Capitol’s coronavirus outbreak grew to nearly three dozen active cases Thursday, as lawmakers say there’s little political will to enact tougher measures than voluntary masking and testing.

Some 10% of the 400 legislators and support staff working at the Capitol have tested positive in the past few days. And the Legislature’s official figures — 33 active cases as of Thursday — exclude at least two additional infections detected on at-home tests, and two cases among media, confirmed by the Daily News.

At least four legislators have publicly confirmed testing positive in recent days: Anchorage Democratic Reps. Chris Tuck and Ivy Spohnholz, North Pole GOP Rep. Mike Prax and Anchorage Democratic Sen. Tom Begich.

Another state senator is finishing a quarantine after a positive test, leaders from that chamber said. And Nome Democratic Rep. Neal Foster also left the building for testing Monday and has not been spotted since then; he has not responded to requests for comment about his status.

Leaders of the largely Democratic House majority, whose legislators and staff have made up a large share of infections, said they were optimistic that case numbers would fall to a safe level over the weekend. That would allow the resumption of floor sessions and work on the state budget, which House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, canceled this week after a few Republican minority members refused to comply with her order that they wear masks.

But others at the Capitol were anxious that patchy adherence to mitigation measures throughout and outside the building could prolong the outbreak and continue to disrupt legislative business into next week and beyond.

Leaders of the mostly Republican Senate majority have not imposed a mask mandate of their own; lawmakers and staff are not required to wear masks outside of the House floor and coronavirus testing is voluntary, not mandatory.


Stutes, whose chief of staff tested positive three days earlier, was spotted eating inside a Juneau restaurant late Tuesday with six other people, including Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary Stevens. And dozens of legislators and staffers — some masked, some not — participated in an annual, bipartisan Senate brunch Wednesday, though organizers said they opened windows and that people only showed up to fill plates of food before retreating to their offices.

“I kept my mask on the whole time. Everyone has their responsibility to behave appropriately and responsibly,” said Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, who set up the brunch with Eagle River Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold. “I wear an N-95 equivalent, and I only took it off to sip coffee.”

“Not a matter of ‘can’t.’ It’s ‘won’t.’ ”

The predicament facing lawmakers is “extraordinary,” and given the importance of their work and the fact that nobody else can do it, they should be taking extra precautions to make sure they can get their job done, said Dr. Tom Hennessy, an infectious disease epidemiologist and University of Alaska Anchorage professor who previously advised the Legislature on coronavirus prevention measures.

Those measures should include masking for Capitol workers and visitors, regular testing, contact tracing, mask and being careful about activity outside of work, Hennessy said. Lawmakers had put those types of measures in place but voted to drop them in February.

“They just could not muster the political will to sustain them. They abandoned the very commonsense measures that were set up administratively,” he said. “It’s not a matter of ‘can’t.’ It’s ‘won’t.’ ”

Lawmakers across the political spectrum, in interviews this week, said there’s little collective interest in reinstating coronavirus mitigation mandates. Stutes said she only controls measures on the House floor, and Juneau Democratic Rep. Sara Hannan, who chairs the joint House-Senate committee that imposed mandates earlier in the pandemic, said there is no point in reviving the debate now.

Earlier in the pandemic, even before coronavirus vaccines were available, there was “active defiance” of the mandates, Hannan said, referring to a few conservative legislators.

“So, what are we going to have two years in?” she said. “There’s no reason to have a meeting when there’s no votes to strengthen the policy.”

She added: “I hope we’ve gotten enough mitigation that we can do the business of the state.”

Some legislators and staff have been noticeably more cautious since Monday, when the outbreak took off. But others disagree that more rigorous measures are necessary.

Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said it doesn’t make sense to reimpose mandates at the Capitol because it’s unlikely those mandates will be followed elsewhere.

“There is zero confidence that if we were to reinstate rules in this building that people are going to behave similarly outside the building — which is why we should not reinstate rules within the building,” he said. “When I voted to remove masks and mandatory testing, it was really based on that hypocrisy: We’re putting on a show in the building, yet many individuals that work here were doing the opposite on a regular basis outside the building all weekend long and sort of acting like altar boys Monday morning.”

“I can’t help you with your fear”

The House Republican minority caucus, meanwhile, issued a statement this week saying their members will protect others by masking when they have symptoms. GOP members have also complained that Democrats are “virtue signaling” by requiring masks on the floor when some progressive legislators and staff participated in indoor events and a party last weekend.

Hennessy, the epidemiologist, said the House minority’s argument about masking “misses the point about COVID” — that it can be transmitted even when people don’t have symptoms.

“We’ve known for more than two years now that you can transmit this virus even before you develop symptoms,” he said. “Waiting until you develop symptoms until you’ve excluded yourself is not how to stop transmission.”

Nikiski GOP Rep. Ben Carpenter, who’s been one of the biggest critics of Capitol mask requirements, said the science behind asymptomatic transmission has been “debunked.”

“When I’m not coughing and sneezing, I don’t need someone to tell me, ‘You need to wear a mask because I’m scared that I might get sick,’ ” he said. “I can’t help you with your fear.”


The stark division over prevention measures has left the Capitol in a situation not unlike the rest of the Alaska and around the country, where different cities and states maintain different mandates even though people frequently mix between them.

Many Republicans and visitors are declining to wear masks at the Capitol, along with the building’s security guards. Some Democratic offices, meanwhile, are requiring masks for staff and regular testing.

One bright spot has been committees that have allowed participation by phone for legislators who either don’t want to wear masks, or who don’t feel comfortable participating in the presence of unmasked colleagues, said Anchorage Democratic Rep. Liz Snyder.

“So far, it seems to have provided an avenue for folks on both ends of the conversation to productively participate,” she said.

But Snyder also pointed out one more factor that could complicate House leaders’ plans to resume floor sessions next week: a weekend memorial service for the late U.S. Rep. Don Young, where many state lawmakers will be in attendance.

“I don’t get the impression that mitigation measures will be a priority. I hope I’m proven wrong,” she said. “So that does give me pause about returning on Monday.”

This story has been updated to add detail on the date that House Speaker Louise Stutes’ chief of staff tested positive for COVID-19.

Nathaniel Herz

Anchorage-based independent journalist Nathaniel Herz has been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at