COVID-19 emergency in Alaska is over, but state leaders diverge on what will follow

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COVID-19 emergency in Alaska is over, but state leaders diverge on what will follow


JUNEAU – The COVID-19 emergency in Alaska expired on February 14, but the pandemic is not over.

Summer fishing and the tourist season promise an influx of out-of-state visitors, and public health officials are calling for continued powers to deal with the pandemic. The Alaska legislature, which can grant these powers, is divided on what to do.

The coalition majority in the House of Representatives said ending the emergency was a mistake. He is promoting a bill that would retroactively restore Alaska’s state of emergency and extend it until September.

“This is a priority for our caucus,” said House Speaker Louise Stutes.

Earlier this year, Governor Mike Dunleavy had similar thoughts. But since then, the number of cases has declined and Alaska’s vaccination rate has become one of the best in the country.

Shortly after Stutes’ comments on Thursday, the governor wrote Stutes a letter saying he no longer believed a declaration of disaster was necessary.

The letter says the governor thinks he needs legislation for just four things: the distribution of vaccines, acceptance of federal aid, authorization to provide healthcare by teleconference, and immunity limited legal status for government officials providing vaccines and treatments.

Senate Speaker Peter Micciche R-Soldotna said the letter contained an implication: “You can pass anything you want, but if (the governor) doesn’t want to sign it, that won’t happen. “

Micciche and the Republican-led majority in the state Senate are gearing up to unveil what they call a “declaration of lightened disaster,” a package of measures designed to address issues identified by the governor and other officials. the state. This does not include a general state of emergency.

At present, the main difference between the two approaches is who is in charge: as part of the House’s strategy, the governor is empowered by the state’s act of disaster to take unilateral action . In the approach of the Senate, the governor should seek authorization from the Legislature to take action beyond a narrow set of powers.

“We are patiently waiting to see what the Legislature does,” state emergency director Bryan Fisher told a group of local government officials on Thursday.

Heidi Hedberg, chief of the Alaska public health division, told the group that Alaska Airlines and Delta Airlines are planning a full schedule of flights to Alaska this summer, and even though cruise ships don’t come in Alaska in 2021, be a lot of tourism if all these flights are booked. ”

Testing at the airport last week identified 37 positive cases, Hedberg said.

Incoming passengers Alex Koehler and Melissa Engelhardt listen to instructions from Marvell Robinson at the COVID-19 test site at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on July 17, 2020 (Emily Mesner / DNA)

Until the declaration of emergency expired, Alaska had asked visitors to take a COVID-19 test upon arrival in the state. Now this test is optional.

Hedberg said testing remains important as the state has to track variants of COVID and some vaccinated people have still managed to catch the disease.

“They still have mild symptoms, but they’re still positive,” she says.

Stutes said airport testing is also essential for seafood processors who transport personnel to remote areas of the state for salmon and groundfish seasons.

Hedberg told local government officials that “now is the time” to prepare for this influx, but she also told them the health department didn’t think they needed a full-fledged emergency declaration like this. that proposed by the House.

“We have made it clear that we need limited authorities to continue responding to this pandemic. We don’t need all the authorities as part of the disaster (declaration), ”she said.

Micciche said the Senate plan is designed to only give public health officials the powers they have asked for, along with a few others that local governments have sought. School districts, for example, would be allowed to provide federal aid spread over several years.

The Senate makes additional demands in a separate bill, and some of these changes will be permanent. A bill allowing corporations to hold required annual meetings by teleconference has already been passed by the Senate.

The House, Senate and Governor agree that the end of the disaster declaration has created problems for SNAP, the program commonly known as food stamps.

Without a declared disaster, Alaska is no longer eligible for $ 8 million per month in federal assistance for the program, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, has said he s ‘was “one of the most important problems” caused by the end of the disaster.

Alaska Senate Speaker Peter Micciche R-Soldotna chats with Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, before a session begins at the State Capitol of the Alaska in Juneau, Alaska on Wednesday, March 10, 2021 (James Brooks / ADN)

Stutes said this was one of the main reasons for retroactively extending the state’s COVID emergency.

But the governor’s office said the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services is working with the federal agency that pays for the aid, and that agency “has flexibility in its regulatory language so that “Alaska continues to receive these benefits without an explicit declaration of disaster,” said Corey Allen Young, a spokesperson for the governor.

Young said, “DHSS is working with the legislature on a limited powers bill necessary for our ongoing COVID-19 response and recovery plan, and with specific language…

This wording is expected in the Senate bill, but the text has not yet been published.

Stutes said the Senate approach was insufficient in general because it did not allow flexibility – what if something happens and the Senate bill ignores it ?

“You have to know it will work, not guess,” she said.

“What’s the downside?” Stutes spoke about the House’s proposed disaster extension. “Can you give me a reason why we shouldn’t have it?”

Popular opinion, said Rep. Bart LeBon, R-Fairbanks, is one reason.

“I have a feeling that a lot of Alaskans believe we are moving out of the need for an emergency declaration,” he said.

Some anti-COVID measures imposed by local governments, such as mask warrants and business closures, have been extremely unpopular among some Alaskans. The state declaration of emergency was never used to demand masks statewide and was only used briefly to shut down businesses, but a significant number of people have testified against the extension of declaration of emergency, as they fear it will encourage local actions they oppose.

LeBon said that with the increase in the number of vaccines and the decrease in the number of cases, it is not as necessary to give the governor extensive powers, and some lawmakers have expressed concerns about the extent to which the governor can act unilaterally.

“I think that’s one of the concerns – an overstepping of the governor’s authority,” he said.

“Is it necessary to protect the Alaskans to have these broad authorities?” Or are we, practically speaking, going beyond that level… where he needs those broad powers? “

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