JUNEAU — A coronavirus outbreak sweeping through the Alaska Capitol is delaying the House’s work on the state budget and further souring relationships between lawmakers who were already deeply divided over masking and other mitigation measures.
There were more than 20 active confirmed cases among people working at the Capitol, according to an internal email Tuesday from the office of House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak. That includes Anchorage Democratic House majority members Chris Tuck and Ivy Spohnholz, who both publicly confirmed their positive tests.
While Alaska’s case rate remains the highest in the nation, Stutes spent Monday and Tuesday publicly arguing with minority Republicans who refused her directive that they limit the outbreak by wearing masks during a floor session.
Meanwhile, multiple mask-wearing members of Stutes’ largely Democratic majority left the House chambers altogether Monday to avoid breathing what they suspected was COVID-contaminated air.
Afterward, Nome Democratic Rep. Neal Foster left the building for testing and didn’t return. He missed an afternoon committee meeting and declined requests to confirm his result.
Foster, in an interview just before his test, said he was one of many people from the Capitol who attended Sham Jam, a Saturday night benefit party at the Red Dog Saloon organized by legislative staffers that some now see as a potential superspreader event.
Lawmakers and staff also mixed indoors over the weekend at a shooting event, after the Capitol outbreak had already started.
“There’s a lot of people,” Stutes said in an interview. “And it’s all different people.”
Stutes’ chief of staff was among those who tested positive, she said; Stutes herself was sick with a “terrible cold” last week but said she tested negative at least twice a day, every day.
Lawmakers had previously eliminated masking and coronavirus testing requirements at the Capitol. But on Monday, in response to the positive tests, Stutes told House members that they would have to wear masks on the floor.
Before the session, Nikiski Republican Rep. Ben Carpenter confronted Stutes in the hallway outside the House chambers. He declined her efforts to pull him into her office for privacy and told her that “I am no threat.”
“You have determined that I’m a threat to the body. Therefore, you’ve threatened to remove me if I don’t put my mask on,” Carpenter told Stutes. “I’m not going to comply. It’s ridiculous.”
Carpenter didn’t respond to a request for comment later in the day.
Stutes responded by telling him that she would immediately gavel out of the session and delay introducing the latest version of Alaska’s operating budget bill if he refused to put a mask on.
“Hey, I’m not any more excited about wearing them than you are,” she said. “But if you don’t want to comply, I just want you to know what the situation’s going to be, OK?”
Stutes then followed through on her threat, ending the floor session after four minutes. In an interview afterward, she blamed Carpenter and two of his GOP minority colleagues for blocking what could have been a quick, masked meeting Monday to allow the outbreak to subside.
“And hopefully, by Thursday, we will be over the hump,” she said in the interview. “They’re stopping progress. And it’s not fair to the rest of the people in there.”
‘Fear and virtue-signaling’
On Tuesday, Stutes canceled a second floor session and, in a statement, again blamed a “portion of the minority” who wouldn’t wear masks.
In its own statement, House minority Republicans said they “take responsibility for their own health” and stay away from work if they have tested positive or feel sick.
“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,” said the statement from spokesman Trey Watson. “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.”
The dueling statements came as the number of active cases at the Capitol continued rising to 24 on Tuesday, up from 15 the day before. Since Saturday, there have been 22 positives.
Foster, just before leaving the Capitol Monday, said lawmakers who are currently positive will likely be able to return to the building next week.
“But that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to get some more people who test positive next week,” he said.
Foster, who co-chairs the House Finance Committee that drafts the chamber’s budget proposal, said majority caucus leaders originally hoped to finish work on the spending plan this week.
But that timeline now appears to be almost certainly delayed.
The House majority, with 21 of the chamber’s 40 seats, has the bare minimum votes to maintain control of the chamber. Having members out sick jeopardizes the caucus’s ability to block hostile amendments from the 18-person Republican minority and to secure the 21 votes needed to pass a final version of the budget.
“It’s a pretty significant concern,” Stutes said.
‘It’s not the end of the world’
Members on both sides of the political masking divide said they were frustrated to again have to contend with coronavirus-related disruptions when they’re ready to move past the pandemic.
But it appeared that nearly all Republicans, who tend to be more opposed to mask mandates, were still willing to wear masks in the House.
The exceptions, according to Stutes, were Carpenter and Wasilla Reps. Christopher Kurka and David Eastman.
“I’d just as soon not wear my mask on the floor. But I also want us to conduct business and keep moving forward,” Fairbanks Republican Rep. Bart LeBon said in an interview. “If it means I wear a mask, I guess I’ll wear my mask. But I don’t want to.”
Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Adam Wool said he had the coronavirus not long ago and hadn’t been wearing a mask recently.
“I’m not crazy about wearing one,” he said.
But, he added, minority Republicans should want to stay healthy so that they can remain at the Capitol and cast their votes on amendments during the budget process.
“If we have to do it for a few days,” Wool said, “it’s kind of in everyone’s best interest. Just wear a mask on the floor for a couple of hours — it’s not the end of the world.”
Outside of the House chambers, many lawmakers, staff and guests at the Capitol were still going without masks this week even as case counts rose.
Events also continued, with a reception at a Juneau restaurant scheduled for Tuesday evening and a potluck brunch Thursday hosted by two senators, Eagle River Republican Lora Reinbold and Juneau Democrat Jesse Kiehl.