Legislative committee approves $1.5 million COVID-19 contract extension for the Alaska Capitol
The debate over the contract and COVID-19 policies became heated on Wednesday evening
JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - A joint legislative committee approved a $1.5 million contract extension on Wednesday evening for testing, screening and vaccinations at the Alaska Capitol.
The Legislative Council approved the contract extension by an 11-3 vote after heated debate.
Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, wanted to discuss COVID-19 policies at the Capitol that mandate mask-wearing, testing and screening protocols. She claimed the policies are unconstitutional, could see liability issues and threaten individual liberties.
Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, the chair of the committee, said that the Legislature’s chief attorney had reviewed the Capitol’s COVID-19 policies and had signed off on them.
Continuing to ask about those policies, Reinbold, the vice chair of the Legislative Council, was repeatedly ruled out of order by an exasperated Hannan. Debate was meant to be focused on the contract and not the Capitol’s COVID-19 policies, Hannan added.
Reinbold was barred from her regular seat in the Senate and removed from a House subcommittee hearing last week for repeatedly failing to wear a mask that complied with the Legislature’s rules. After a weeklong dispute, Reinbold has been wearing a clear face shield surrounded by foam that is said to be acceptable.
She declined an interview request on Thursday, saying that she was too busy with committee work. Reinbold emailed answers to questions from Alaska’s News Source, writing that she wants COVID-19 policies at the Capitol that are grounded in science and are dictated by the Alaska Constitution, but she did not detail specifics.
Wasilla Republicans Sen. Mike Shower and Rep. Cathy Tilton joined Reinbold in opposing the extension of the contract. They said the current COVID-19 policies at the Capitol were set by the previous Legislature and that they should first be reviewed before a contract extension is granted.
“I’m being asked to approve a budget extension over policies I haven’t had the chance to have input into yet,” Shower said.
The chair of the previous Legislative Council Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, argued that it’s normal practice for that committee’s rules to stay in place until they are amended or rescinded by a new Legislative Council.
Stevens warned about loosening restrictions too quickly.
“I hope we’d be very cautious of that because we’ve been very successful at controlling COVID in this building with all of the things that we’ve been doing,” he said.
Jessica Geary, the executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency, said that the Capitol’s COVID-19 rules, that have closed the building to the public, are guided by health experts.
“And the second the CDC says we can loosen up restrictions and guidelines, we’re going to be all over that, if this committee wishes to do that,” she said.
Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, proposed that lawmakers get together at another date to examine the Beacon contract and possibly review the Capitol COVID-19 policies currently in place. Hannan accepted that idea.
Beacon Occupational Health and Safety Services was awarded the initial COVID-19 contract last November. To date, the Anchorage-based company has administered over 6,000 COVID-19 tests to lawmakers, staff and the media since the legislative session began in mid January.
The contract will be paid from federal COVID-19 funding, to the greatest extent possible, and will be extended until June 30.
Geary wrote last week that the need for the additional funding is due to extra staffing requirements and for more testing than was projected earlier.
Beacon has also rented hotel rooms for legislators and staff who needed to socially distance after testing positive for the virus and for people who need to isolate. A COVID-19 outbreak at the Capitol has meant that more hotel rooms than expected have been booked.
“Currently, we have had approximately 20 people identified as either positive or a close contact who used this program, with the highest hotel count at nine rooms,” Geary said on March 10.
The COVID-19 cluster at the Capitol has continued to grow with three legislative staff testing positive for the virus since Monday and an additional 16 staff in quarantine.
The Legislative Council also learned that Beacon had administered 240 first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to legislators, staff and the media in the Capitol, representing over half of the total workforce in the building.
Stevens applauded the vaccine rollout in the Capitol, which saw shots donated by the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium.
“It could have saved people untold hardship and illness,” he said.
A separate vote by the legislative committee, made retroactive to Jan. 25, authorized Beacon to administer the vaccine to anyone who wants it inside the Capitol. Reinbold was the sole no vote.
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