Governor set to decide whether to extend Alaska’s COVID-19 disaster declaration next week
A legislative committee is also discussing how to conduct a legislative session safely
JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he would make an announcement next week on whether to extend the state’s COVID-19 public health emergency disaster declaration.
The Legislature voted in March to extend the governor’s 30-day COVID-19 disaster declaration until Nov. 15.
Senate Bill 241 allows for alternative care sites to operate if hospital capacity is overwhelmed during the pandemic, it also allows for patients to use telehealth services without first having an in-person appointment. It has also allowed for health care professionals to become licensed more easily in Alaska during the pandemic.
“It would completely change the way we’re allowed to operate,” said Jared Kosi, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.
Kosin explained that the declaration has allowed for federal health care waivers to be in effect in Alaska during the pandemic. They mean that health care providers can monitor COVID-19 patients remotely and for patients to be triaged outside hospitals.
“We don’t understand what the considerations are at this point,” Kosin said about why the governor would not pledge now to extend the declaration.
The governor’s remaining health mandates would expire if the disaster declaration is not extended. The state may also be less likely to receive further federal coronavirus funding, Kosin said.
Fifteen members of the House majority coalition wrote a letter to the governor on Tuesday, urging him to extend the disaster declaration. The Alaska Municipal League wrote a letter to the governor last week, making the same request.
“Effective response during this pandemic has depended on clear guidance from the State and relatively well-understood and enforceable mitigation measures in the form of mandates,” wrote Nils Andreassen, the executive director of AML. "Local governments are better able to take action on their own if they can do so by building on the State’s response.
The governor would not answer on Tuesday whether he would call the Legislature into a special session to extend the declaration.
“We believe that the tools we have available to us, we still have available to us, are going to help us manage the virus,” he said on Tuesday. “But again, we’ll be able to pull the trigger and have a conversation into next week.”
During a legislative committee hearing on Wednesday, Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said that a memorandum on the disaster declaration had been prepared by the Legislature’s attorneys. “We have a legal opinion that the disaster declaration can only be extended by the Legislature,” she said.
The legal opinion states that a special legislative committee could not extend the disaster declaration by itself and the governor likely could not do it unilaterally either.
“Unless the governor wishes to address a different emergency, the governor likely cannot issue a second proclamation to address the same disaster or condition, because the power to extend a disaster emergency rests solely with the legislature,” Megan Wallace, the Legislature’s top attorney, wrote to House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, in August.
Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for the governor, would not say if the governor’s office believes if there is a workaround for the governor to extend the declaration without the Legislature’s approval.
“The governor is taking into consideration all options when it comes to the emergency declaration,” Turner said. “A decision will be made by Nov. 15.”
Edgmon said the Legislature does not have the 40 votes required to call itself into a special session to extend the disaster declaration.
The Legislature plans for a coronavirus-impacted legislative session
A special legislative committee met on Thursday to decide how the next regular legislative session should be held in January during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Legislative Council spoke about ways that the Legislature could meet remotely for committee hearings and have legislators vote remotely.
In May, the Senate passed a resolution that suspended rules preventing the Legislature from meeting and voting remotely. The Legislature gaveled out before the House could pass the same resolution.
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said there should be allowances if legislators get sick and can’t come in-person, but a priority should be ensuring that the legislative session is held at the State Capitol. “Clearly, Juneau is set up to handle the legislative work far better than any other location,” he added.
The Legislative Council also approved a screening policy and a mask policy that would require staffers, Capitol staff and credentialed media to wear face masks in the State Capitol. Legislators would be encouraged but not required to wear masks on the floor.
The special legislative committee is also planning to close the Capitol building to the public, limit travel by legislators during the session and offer regular COVID-19 testing.
Similar restrictions were put in place before the Legislature adjourned in March and when it held a brief special session in May.
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