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Barred from flying over mask dispute, lawmaker asks to be excused from Senate

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – An Alaska lawmaker has asked to be excused from legislative sessions until next year, saying she has no way to fly to the state capital after she was barred from Alaska Airlines for violating mask policies.

The lawmaker, Ms Lora Reinbold, a Republican state senator, was captured on video in April arguing with employees at Juneau International Airport about mask rules.

After the confrontation, Alaska Airlines said it had notified Ms Reinbold that she was “not permitted to fly with us for her continued refusal to comply with employee instruction regarding the current mask policy”.

Ms Reinbold had previously complained about Alaska Airlines on Facebook, saying it was “part of mask tyranny”.

She had also been scolded by Alaska’s governor, Mr Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, who accused her of spreading misinformation about the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and of having “abdicated the tenets of your oath as a public servant”.

Speaking on the floor of the Alaska state Senate on Thursday (Sept 9), Ms Reinbold asked that she be excused from Senate business from Sept 11 through Jan 15 “because there’s no airline other than Alaska Airlines that flies into Juneau during that period that I’m aware of”.

“The political ban is still in place as long as Biden’s illegitimate mask mandate is in place on private and public transportation,” she told her colleagues.

The Republican-led Senate accepted her request without objection and indicated that she would be shown as “excused on those dates”.

Ms Reinbold represents Eagle River, Alaska. If she cannot fly, a trip from her district to Juneau, the state capital, could require her to travel more than 19 hours by car and ferry, and to cross over the Canadian border.

Alaska Airlines said on Saturday that Ms Reinbold had been told on April 24 that she was not permitted to fly on the airline.

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

It added that the suspension would remain in effect “while the federal mask policy is in place”.

Referring to a statement from April, Alaska Airlines said, “Federal law requires all guests to wear a mask over their nose and mouth at all times during travel, including throughout the flight, during boarding and deplaning, and while travelling through an airport.”

On Thursday, Ms Reinbold defended her request to be excused from Senate business.

“To be excused does NOT mean you will not be here, it means the legislative process cannot be inhibited if you are not there,” she wrote on Facebook.

If the only major airline offering flights to Juneau “can unconstitutionally impede a legislator’s ability to get to the Capital in a safe and timely fashion”, she added, “it could undermine our representative republic”.

Last month, the Transportation Security Administration announced that it was extending the requirement that travellers in the United States wear masks at airports, on airplanes, and on commuter buses and trains through Jan 18.

Mask mandates have become a major flash point on airplanes, contributing to a surge in unruly and sometimes violent behaviour from passengers who refuse to comply.

The TSA first announced in February that everyone – except children under two and people with some disabilities – would be required to wear masks on airplanes and in airports in the United States.

The agency has received more than 4,000 reports of mask-related incidents since then.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced that the agency would double fines for travellers who refuse to wear masks in airports and on commercial airplanes.

The minimum penalty for first-time offenders was raised to US$500 (S$670.87).

Second-time mask refusers may be fined as much as US$3,000.

“If you break the rules, be prepared to pay – and by the way, show some respect,” Mr Biden said.

In the video that was posted on Twitter in April, Ms Reinbold is seen at the airport in Juneau, wearing a mask but arguing with employees about it.

“We need you to pull the mask up, or I’m not going to let you on the flight,” an employee tells Ms Reinbold.

“It is up,” Ms Reinbold responds.

“It is not,” the employee says. “It’s down below your nose. We can’t have it down.”

It was not clear if Ms Reinbold had been permitted on the flight. One of the videos shows her leaving the boarding area.

In March, Ms Reinbold said on Facebook that she had been asked to leave a committee hearing because she was not wearing an approved face shield.

After that, Ms Reinbold was barred from the state Capitol until she complied with health and safety protocols. She later returned to the Capitol in a clear face mask.

“My actions are to protect my constitutional rights, including civil liberties and those who I represent, even under immense pressure and public scrutiny,” Ms Reinbold wrote in March.

She did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Saturday.

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