A notice board at the Alaska State Capitol on Tuesday, March 29, 2022, shows the cancellation of the House of Representatives floor session for that morning. For the second day running the House has canceled floor sessions over disagreements between caucuses over masking rules amid an outbreak of COVID-19 among some lawmakers and their staff. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

A notice board at the Alaska State Capitol on Tuesday, March 29, 2022, shows the cancellation of the House of Representatives floor session for that morning. For the second day running the House has canceled floor sessions over disagreements between caucuses over masking rules amid an outbreak of COVID-19 among some lawmakers and their staff. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

House again cancels floor session amid masking debate

Some lawmakers resist mask requirements amid COVID-19 outbreak

For the second day in a row, a floor session of the Alaska House of Representatives was canceled due to an outbreak of COVID-19 among lawmakers and their staff.

A session was abruptly adjourned Monday morning following the refusal by some Republican lawmakers to wear face masks while in the House chamber, and Tuesday’s session was canceled just shortly before its 10 a.m. start time.

In a statement, House Majority Coalition spokesperson Joe Plesha said the session was canceled after it was made clear that a portion of the Republican minority was refusing to comply with the reinstated masking requirement.

“With 22 active cases in the building and potentially more yet to be detected, (House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak) has asked that members wear their masks for floor this week only, with the intent to lift the masking requirement on April 4,” Plesha said.

House Finance Committee co-chair Neal Foster, D-Nome, said Monday House leadership intended to submit the state’s operating budget bill to the floor this week, but with absences in the House it’s currently unclear when that might happen.

“It is unfortunate that a minority of legislators are using masks as a political wedge as opposed to getting the work done for Alaskans,” Plesha said.

[COVID cases, mask debates delay House]

In their own statement, the Republican minority accused House leadership of delay tactics.

“The actions taken by the Majority coalition leadership are a result of fear and virtue-signaling; neither are fitting for a body of elected officials with a constitutional responsibility to pass an operating budget” Trey Watson, communications director for the minority said. “House minority members have been present and ready to work. The fact that some choose not to wear a mask is not a viable excuse to abruptly adjourn or cancel the floor session. Debatable science must not dictate the people’s business every time COVID makes an appearance.”

Assistant to the Senate Finance Committee Doniece Gott said in an email Tuesday masks would be required in the committee room until further notice.

Another floor session of the House was scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday.

State pushes back against mask mandates

Also Tuesday, the Alaska Department of Law announced the state is joining 20 other states in a lawsuit against the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention challenging mask requirements on public transportation.

The lawsuit argues the CDC does not have the authority to introduce or enforce masking restrictions on American citizens, DOL said in a statement.

“The CDC’s measure was not authorized by Congress, and the CDC did not put the mandate up for notice and comment, which is typically required for these type (sic) of regulations,” DOL said.

Alaska is joined in the lawsuit by Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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