It’s masked at the Alaska Capitol – but the public is still off limits
Most of Alaska’s capital has reopened, with restaurants and businesses teeming with tourists. The State Capitol? Not really.
State legislative leaders last month revoked their mask wearing requirement for the Capitol. But they have so far maintained a strict ban on members of the public entering the building – and they are showing little urgency in changing that anytime soon. The ban prevents summer tourists from entering, forcing lobbyists to do business with Zoom and preventing Alaskans from attending key committee meetings and ground sessions in person.
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Lawmakers have kept the Capitol closed to everyone except lawmakers, employees and a handful of journalists for the duration of their regular session, which ended last month, and until the current special session, which began May 20.
COVID-19 mandates were originally intended to protect lawmakers and staff who were needed to pass a budget essential to the functioning of state government – but that process took months longer than expected, the Democratic representative from Juneau, Sara Hanna, who chairs the Common House. -Committee of the Senate which manages the internal affairs of the Legislature.
“There were times when we thought we would have a budget in April and May,” she said in an interview this week. “And now it’s June 1 and we still haven’t crossed that threshold.”
The Legislative Council is due to hold a meeting later this month and will likely discuss the future of the Capitol Hill mandates, Hannan said. But it’s unclear how quickly those terms might be revoked and what precautions might remain in place, as Hannan said she couldn’t speak for the other 13 members of the committee.
“I can’t promise it. But I predict that will be on the agenda list: COVID policies that remain in place, including access to buildings, ”Hannan said. She added: “There is a lot of dialogue about opening the building.”
Related: Banned from Capitol Hill, Alaska lobbyists face pandemic situation
In a series of talks on Capitol Hill this week, state lawmakers showed varying degrees of enthusiasm for opening the building to the public – and some noted that it was a relatively quiet time, with only a few committee meetings per week.
But none categorically opposed it.
“I miss tourists, interacting with them in the hallways. It helps to pass the time a little faster because we are in times of rush and wait, ”said Republican Senator from Wasilla, David Wilson. “It should be open.
Anchorage Democratic Representative Geran Tarr said she also supports opening the Capitol, provided members of the public are scrutinized as employees.
“They were able to effectively screen hundreds of people every day who had to come to work,” she said. “And I’ve never seen so many visitors come in on a summer day, so I think we could handle it.”
Lawmakers have so far spent $ 2.1 million in federal aid on a contract with an occupational health and safety company, Beacon, for COVID-19-related screening and testing, officials said legislative.
About 85% of people working on Capitol Hill are now vaccinated, officials said, and although Beacon is still examining lawmakers and employees for symptoms of the coronavirus, his contract ends June 30.
This means that without change, the cabinet would not be available for screening lawmakers or members of the public wishing to attend another special session that GOP Governor Mike Dunleavy has called for August.
So, given lawmakers’ interest in reopening and available screening, why hasn’t the legislature already increased access? The answer appears to be institutional inertia, according to Hannan.
Businesses and individuals can make their own decisions after considering the risks and benefits of reopening, she said. But the government works differently, she added.
“Democracy is a collective process, where everyone does not do what they want,” she said.