Concerns about new virus, oil volatility affecting Alaska

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JUNEAU, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy is freezing the hiring of state workers not essential to health or safety as oil markets roil, and state lawmakers are making plans to prepare for how they will handle their work should there be a confirmed case of the new coronavirus in the capital city.

Restrictions also have been ordered on state employee and legislative travel.

Sen. Gary Stevens, chair of the Legislative Council, said some things that could be looked at as part of the Legislature’s preparations include whether to close the Capitol to the public or look at a change in rules that would allow votes by phone, if necessary.

“There’s lots of issues to consider. We want to make sure that the Legislature can continue to operate and do its job and adjourn in a timely way,” he said Tuesday, after announcing plans for a subcommittee to work on contingencies.

The Legislature is over halfway through a scheduled 90-day session but in recent years has run up against a longer constitutional meeting limit and needed special sessions to finish. Still outstanding are budget bills, consideration of appointments by Gov. Mike Dunleavy and a decision on the size of a check to pay residents from the state’s oil-wealth fund, the Alaska Permanent Fund.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon expects the subcommittee to come up with a communications plan and get a process in place, should there be a confirmed case in the Capitol, for getting a budget passed and addressing priorities that would require immediate attention.

Some signs have been posted in the Capitol, including one discouraging hand-shaking. Edgmon said he’s washing his hands more, coughing into his sleeve and being more cognizant of personal space.

“And I’ve got my fingers crossed that we don’t have any reported cases in Alaska or certainly not here in the Capitol,” he said.

Dunleavy, speaking to reporters from Anchorage Tuesday, said the administration expects to provide regular updates on the virus and state response plans. As of Tuesday afternoon, Alaska had no confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to state health officials.

On Monday, the governor suspended out-of-state travel for state employees and implemented a hiring freeze. His chief of staff, Ben Stevens, cited a need to control spending amid oil market volatility and impacts on the state’s financial resources.

Concerns with the new coronavirus have roiled markets along with a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia over oil. North Slope oil was about $34 a barrel Monday. Alaska relies on oil revenue and permanent fund earnings to help pay for government expenses.

Ben Stevens, in a memo, said the hiring freeze would not apply to positions essential for protecting health and safety of Alaskans.

State health Commissioner Adam Crum said efforts are underway to hire public health nurses and other positions to help with the virus response in anticipation that a funding request would be approved by lawmakers. He said retired public health nurses with experience working in rural Alaska have been contacted as part of that effort. The positions are not affected by the freeze, Dunleavy said.

The offices of Edgmon and Senate President Cathy Giessel announced restrictions on out-of-state travel for lawmakers and staff, and suggested against personal travel outside Alaska by members. Emails Monday said the action was intended “to protect our entire legislative family” and the functioning of the Legislature while it is underway in Juneau.