Over the past week, promising progress on the state budget stalled in the Capitol building amid a stalemate over a mask requirement on the house floor. House Speaker Louise Stutes refused to hold a floor session until all lawmakers and staff present were masked, and a few recalcitrant lawmakers from the Republican minority caucus refused to do so.
Stutes’ action came amid a legislative outbreak of COVID-19 among lawmakers and staff. As of Thursday, nearly three dozen cases had been filed on Capitol Hill, throwing a wrench into what was already tense deliberation over state spending plans and other important legislation. Four House members, Democrats and Republicans, were sick and a similar number of minority members refused Stutes’ mask edict.
To be clear, more than just a health measure is going on here. Two members of Stutes’ majority-naked caucus were in quarantine with COVID and unable to attend floor sessions. This meant that the House majority‘s ability to pass legislation along caucus lines — which these days has often been the only way to pass bills — was no longer operational. The solution adopted by Speaker Stutes: using a new mask mandate as an excuse to cancel sessions in the House last week. For their part, members of the minority caucus have demonstrated time and time again that they’re all too happy to scrub the works any way they can, and if that means flouting a mask mandate, great.
But these political considerations only show why many Alaskans are disenchanted with lawmakers’ inability, or at least unwillingness, to do their job. COVID-19 notwithstanding, we need a budget passed, and last year lawmakers nearly caused the first-ever Alaskan government shutdown before they managed it.
Worse, lawmakers’ risk tolerance for COVID-19 conveniently changes depending on the circumstances. While some lawmakers and their staff are scrupulous about masking in the Capitol, others are not, whether elsewhere in the Capitol or when socializing after hours — including, it seems. , President Stutes herself. It is dishonest to show off morality on the clock and then eat and drink in restaurants and bars at night as if the pandemic is no longer an issue. It’s precisely this hypocrisy that has caused many to write off the House’s latest mask mandate as just more COVID-19 theater.
The fact is, unless lawmakers suddenly decide to enact building-wide health measures for all lawmakers and staff, enacting a one-room mask mandate for one of two bodies of the Legislative Assembly offers no real protection against the spread of the virus. If Rep. Stutes feels strongly that such a mandate is necessary, she should apply to the Legislative Council, which is responsible for Capitol-wide health measures. If that proves a bridge too far, the House should go back to doing the people’s business.
At this point in the pandemic, it is time for the state government to follow the lead of the private sector and learn to operate despite COVID-19, rather than halting its vital work to discuss masks. Regulators are all responsible adults who can make their own risk assessments.
Lawmakers who have gone out of their way to be safe are vaccinated and fortified against COVID-19. N95 masks further reduce their risk of contracting the disease. Therefore, the risk that unmasked and/or unvaccinated lawmakers create is primarily for themselves. The harm caused by halting legislation and wasting valuable time that could be spent crafting Alaska’s operating budget is greater than the refusal of a few minority lawmakers to wear their masks.