Alaska lawmakers reconvene with virus screening protocols

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The Alaska Legislature reconvened Monday for the first time since recessing in late March over coronavirus concerns, with new screening protocols aimed guarding against the virus.

Under the protocols, details of which were released Monday, legislative staff and reporters were required to undergo screening, consisting of a temperature check and questions about travel, contacts and symptoms. Screenings were done by Capital City Fire/Rescue, and badges with a colored sticker were issued to be worn in the Capitol noting that a person had been screened.

The protocols, released by the Legislative Affairs Agency, say legislators may refuse screening. Senate Rules Chair John Coghill said the reason is that a lawmaker cannot be barred from entering the building or “going to their job.”

“What we’re trying to do is give the opportunity for people to look out for the well-being of their peers but not mandating that they wear a mask or even go through the screening. It’s our recommendation they do it,” the North Pole Republican said.

Rep. Ben Carpenter, a Nikiski Republican, faced backlash in raising questions about the screening process last week in an email chain with other legislators. “If my sticker falls off, do I get a new one or do I get public shaming too? Are the stickers available as a yellow Star of David?” he wrote.

Carpenter in an interview Friday said he was trying to make a point about a loss of liberties. He said coronavirus fears are “causing us to have policies that don’t make any sense.” He and other House members Monday wore masks to the floor.

Several legislators thanked the screeners as they went through the process. One jokingly asked about ways to keep glasses from fogging while wearing a mask.

Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold, in a social media post accompanying the rules, said she would “politely decline,” calling them “over the top.” The Eagle River Republican did not wear a mask to the Senate floor.

The Capitol will remain closed to the public. The protocols say face coverings must be worn — though Coghill said legislators will not be mandated to do so — and people are to maintain social distancing, including having only one person in an elevator at a time.

Nonessential staff and reporters were not allowed on the Senate floor Monday, according to a statement from Senate majority communications director Daniel McDonald, citing limited space and social distancing requirements. The larger House chamber allowed press seating in a gallery section.

House and Senate members largely appeared to remain in their usual seating arrangements, though Sen. Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, at one point moved to a gallery where there was more room.

Other legislatures that are meeting have adopted protocols as well. Hawaii, for example, has temperature screening, face-mask requirements and recommended limits on the number of people in elevators.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

Alaska lawmakers face a pending constitutional meeting deadline Wednesday, though they can extend for another 10 days if they muster sufficient support.

The session’s resumption was prodded by a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of plans for distributing federal coronavirus relief aid. A legislative committee agreed to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s plans for more than $1 billion in aid funds, despite legal questions over whether that was the appropriate process for approving some of the items.

The House majority, in a release last week, said the sole focus will be on clearing up questions about use of the funds. However, a House committee on Tuesday plans a hearing on voting by mail and the House has noticed on its calendar a bill updating the state’s alcohol laws and a measure to raise the state’s motor fuel tax.

Austin Baird, the House majority communications director, said the vote-by-mail hearing is informational only and said he wasn’t sure if there would be action on the alcohol and motor fuel tax bills.