As legislators and their staff make plans to head to Juneau in January, they are going to be paying attention to strict rules about their movement and attire. If they break the rules, legislators may face consequences, including being excluded from being able to perform their constitutional duty.
Legislative Council, which handles legislative business when the Legislature is not in session, has been devising sets of rules and how they will be enforced, including who will enforce them.
First, those traveling to Juneau to work in the Capitol Building will need to have a COVID-19 test shortly before they board the plane for Juneau. They’ll need to arrive early in the capital city and quarantine themselves for two weeks before the session starts, and get another COVID-19 test 12 days into their stay. If they leave Juneau to go home for a break, they’ll have to repeat that protocol.
Tests will be available for legislators and staff in the Anchorage and Fairbanks airports. Others traveling through other airports will need to make arrangements to get a COVID-19 test within a day or so of their departure. In Juneau, there will be a contractor doing testing in the airport and at the Capitol. That contractor is Beacon, an occupational safety and health services provider
When entering the Capitol building, legislators, their immediate families, and staff members will have their temperatures read by a Beacon employee. They will be required to answer a health screening survey, which will likely ask them if they have been exposed to anyone who was contagious with COVID-19 during recent days or if they are experiencing any symptoms.
Everyone in the Capitol will be required to wear face masks when in the hallways or outside of their offices. This will be enforced by Legislative Security.
On the floors of the House and Senate Chambers, members will be required to wear a double-ply masks, and will be removed from the chambers by the Sergeant of Arms if they do not. They will need to ask permission to approach the dais, and may not congregate at the dais. Floor staff will not be refilling their water glasses.
Frequent breaks will be taken for hydrostatic sanitation, and members will be behind plexiglas panels, to reduce the transmission of aerosols that may have the virus.
Specifically, the rules state:
- Any member who refuses the temperature reading or refuses to answer health screening questions will be denied entrance to the Capitol.
- Any member who refuses to wear face covering will be escorted by the Beacon contractor to her individual office where she shall remain.
- Any member who refuses to undergo testing shall be reported to presiding officer and Rules chair and the Legislative Affairs Agency executive director for appropriate action, if any.
- Anyone who screens positive for symptom shall be escorted to an onsite testing location for further screening and testing.
- Any member testing positive cannot be in Capitol until their quarantine is over as determined by the contractor.
- Any member who has close contact with known positive must self quarantine, as determined by the contractor.
- The intent of Legislative Council is that a member will be excused from the “call of the House” if they are quarantined
- In absence of a presiding officer on the first day, the rules will be enforced by the Sergeant of Arms or Legislative Security.
Members may be able to vote from their offices if they don’t wish to comply with the mask mandate, but there would need to be a rule change to allow that to occur. That change can’t be voted on until the new 32nd Legislature convenes, so any member refusing to wear a mask in the chamber would not be able to vote on the incoming presiding officer.
The one vote against the new policy was Rep. DeLena Johnson of Palmer, who said she was concerned about disenfranchising an entire district from having its member able to represent them.
But Sen. Tom Begich said that even now members can be removed for not following decorum. Men, for instance, are not allowed on the floor of either body without wearing a necktie.
“These rules only apply until we have a new president and speaker. It is pretty extraordinary, but we know the fears that many of our employees have,” said Sen. Gary Stevens, who is co-chair of the Legislative Council. “The questioned health conditions they have that they may not even be aware of, and some may not even work for us if they don’t feel safe.”
One aspect of the rules was amended. That one would have required legislators to remain seated while speaking. Sen. Bert Stedman and Sen. Natasha Von Imhof said that it was unnecessary, considering all the other barriers in place. That rule was removed on a close vote.
Members of the public, including the press, will not be allowed in the Senate or House chambers, something that Sen. Gary Stevens said has made members of the press unhappy.
Although one Legislature cannot bind the next one, neither the House nor Senate has organized with leaders, and it’s likely that the 32nd Legislature may begin and continue for several days without leadership in place. These rules are to govern that interim period, Stevens said, but they also may provide the next Legislature with guidance on how to provide a safe work environment not only for Legislators but for the employees of the building.
Sen. Cathy Giessel and Rep. Bryce Edgmon have sent a letter to the committee that is making the decision on who should receive the next round of vaccines. They have requested that legislators and staff be prioritized because they have a constitutional duty to pass a budget.
Legislators and staff will need to arrive in Juneau on or before Jan. 4 in order to complete their quarantine and testing and be ready for the session to start on Jan. 19.