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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP lawmaker who refused to follow mask mandate while flying says she can’t get to the Alaskan capital

Alaska state Sen. Lora Reinbold (R) has emerged as one of the loudest voices in Juneau against coronavirus restrictions. She has even refused to wear a face mask in the Capitol, instead donning a clear shield over her mouth. (Becky Bohrer/AP)

An Alaska lawmaker who is banned from flying on the state’s leading airline for refusing to wear a mask was excused from attending floor votes for the rest of the year after telling legislative leaders she has no way to fly to and from the state capital.

State Sen. Lora Reinbold, a Republican representing an Anchorage suburb, said this week that Alaska Airlines offered the only flights between her district and Juneau from now through the end of the year. The airline banned her indefinitely in the spring after she clashed with staffers over the airline mask mandate issued by federal transportation officials.

Alaska Airlines banned Alaska state Sen. Lora Reinbold (R) from flights after she refused to follow masking rules at Juneau International Airport on April 22. (Video: Anonymous via Storyful)

Delta Air Lines is the only other commercial carrier that flies between the two cities, and its service stops Saturday.

“I asked to be excused because Delta last flight out is Sept 11,” Reinbold wrote in a Facebook post. “To be excused does NOT mean you will not be here, it means the legislative process cannot be inhibited if you are not there.”

Alaska lawmaker blasted airline for ‘mask tyranny.’ Now she’s banned from the only flights to the capital.

Reinbold and Alaska Senate leadership didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment Saturday.

The Transportation Security Administration requires all air travelers to wear face coverings on flights, during boarding and deplaning, and while in the airport. Alaska Airlines banned Reinbold from its flights on April 24, the company told The Washington Post on Saturday.

“Since then, a review did happen and the suspension was upheld,” the company said in an emailed statement.

Lawmaker protests against mask mandates have become their own distinct genre of outcry against public health measures intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and Reinbold’s request to sit out the rest of the year is the latest example.

It’s a trend that persists even as the highly infectious delta variant spreads across the country and health officials urge people to follow guidelines that have been shown to reduce infection, hospitalization and death.

In Maine earlier this year, a group of conservative lawmakers blew past security in the state capitol without wearing masks that were required in the building. As punishment, legislative leaders stripped them of their committee assignments. In Idaho, two state representatives helped organize demonstrations across the state during the spring in which people burned masks in flaming barrels.

Congressional lawmakers have pushed back on masking, too. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) memorably mocked the public health response to the pandemic by wearing a gas mask on the House floor last March. And in May of this year, a group of Republican lawmakers posed maskless for pictures after Democratic leaders adopted a mask mandate on the House floor until all lawmakers and staff are vaccinated.

The action involving Reinbold comes as Alaska, like other states, is facing a sharp rise in infections. Average daily caseloads in the sparsely populated state topped 600 this week for the first time since the winter surge, according to data tracked by The Washington Post. Hospitalizations have jumped about 20 percent since last week, exceeding their peak in January.

Reinbold has been one of the Alaska legislature’s most vocal opponents of masking and other public health mandates since early in the pandemic. She has used committee hearings to criticize Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s pandemic rules and promotes misinformation about masking and vaccines on her Facebook page. She refused to don a mask in the legislature, instead wearing a clear shield over her face.

Her actions have turned her into something of a pariah among her fellow legislators. In the spring, lawmakers voted to remove her as chair of the judiciary committee after the governor accused her of spreading misinformation about the virus, the Anchorage Daily News reported. She was also briefly banned from most of the building for refusing to follow mask rules.

Dunleavy accused her of misrepresenting the state’s pandemic response in a February letter.

“It is lamentable that the good citizens of Eagle River and Chugiak are deprived of meaningful representation by the actions of the person holding the office of Senator,” he wrote at the time. “I will not continue to subject the public resources of the State of Alaska to the mockery of a charade, disguised as public purpose.”

Her dispute with Alaska Airlines began last fall, when she posted a Facebook screed calling staffers “mask bullies” for telling her to wear her face covering.

In April, a police officer responded to an Alaska Airlines terminal in Juneau where Reinbold was bickering with employees. Shortly after, the airline banned her “for her continued refusal to comply with employee instruction regarding the current mask policy,” the airline said in a statement to The Washington Post.

While it’s possible to drive from Anchorage to Juneau — and Reinbold said she has made the trek herself after the ban — it’s an arduous journey of about 800 miles that takes two days of travel.

It starts with several hundred miles of Alaska Route 1, a narrow wilderness highway with some tight curves and few passing lanes. The next leg crosses the Canadian border and cuts through the Yukon. Then, it’s a relatively quick hop to Haines, Alaska, on the southern coast. From there, it’s a four-hour ferry ride to the state capital.

Tim Elfrink contributed to this report.