Alaska governor creating economic team amid virus response

JUNEAU — Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced Tuesday that a one-time political rival will help lead a new team tasked with looking at ways to aid Alaska’s economy amid concerns with the new coronavirus.

Former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat whom Dunleavy defeated in the 2018 gubernatorial race, and former Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, will lead the so-called Alaska Economic Stabilization Team. Dunleavy’s office said former elected officials and economic leaders will also be involved.

Meanwhile, the state is suspending visitation at its Pioneer Homes; a company that provides air service to rural Alaska communities is changing its protocols; and a cruise line plans to dock an idled ship in Mexico rather than Alaska, as previously planned. These are among the latest developments related to the new coronavirus. The COVID-19 illness causes mild or moderate symptoms in most people. But severe symptoms are more likely in the elderly or those with existing health problems. Three people have tested positive in Alaska.

Economic team

Dunleavy’s office said the new team will work with his administration on an economic plan as the state prepares for the impact of the virus. There are worries about the tourism, fishing and oil sectors, along with the service industry and other businesses.

The state, which has struggled with a longstanding deficit, relies on oil and earnings from the Alaska Permanent Fund to help pay for government. North Slope oil prices have fallen below $30 a barrel, and markets of late have been volatile. The mayor of Anchorage on Monday ordered a temporary shutdown of facilities such as gyms and theaters and dine-in service at restaurants and bars in the city. Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner said Begich and Parnell are two recognized leaders in Alaska. They represent different ends of the political spectrum, and Dunleavy wanted the effort to be as bipartisan as possible, Turner said.

Response funds

The Senate’s budget-writing committee has included in a spending measure $15 million for public health and emergency programs related to the new coronavirus.

The funding was requested by Dunleavy’s administration, which also proposed using $8.5 million in cruise ship funds to help communities visited by cruise ships guard against COVID-19. The Senate Finance Committee also accepted that request.

Dunleavy’s budget office said the $15 million could be used for things like temporary housing for individuals under quarantine or who need to be isolated and have no other options; medical and protective equipment; transportation to housing or for medical assistance; and personnel.

If the bill passes the full Senate, it would return to the House for consideration.

The Legislature previously approved about $4.1 million in state funds and authorized receipt of federal funds to help respond to the virus.

Pioneer home visitation

Visitors, including family members, will not be allowed at Alaska’s Pioneer Homes for now, according to direct care supervisor Heidi Hamilton. Plans will be made for residents to maintain contact with loved ones through other means, Hamilton said.

Hamilton, in a letter, said residents can leave the state-supported elder-care facilities, but it’s recommended they limit close contact with others and avoid crowds. Hamilton said residents will be screened for signs of illness and risk of exposure while out.

It’s not clear how long the restrictions will remain in place, Hamilton said. While the decision is heartbreaking, it’s also necessary, she said.

“The risk to the residents’ health is just too great to not take all possible precautions,” Hamilton wrote.

Flight screenings

RavnAir Group, which provides air service to many rural Alaska communities, said it will begin “verbal risk screening” of passengers and employees and implement new cleaning protocols for its aircraft.

The company, in a statement, said it is asking passengers if they’ve come from a foreign country or a U.S. state experiencing an outbreak, if they’ve been exposed to anyone who has or may have the virus, and if they have symptoms of a serious illness or COVID-19. There also is a visual assessment for symptoms, the company said, adding that it turned away four people Tuesday using the protocol and directed them to medical facilities.

Cruise ship

Holland America Line announced it will bring the Westerdam to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, instead of Juneau. The company, in a statement, said the decision on where to dock the Westerdam was reassessed when it last week announced plans to halt operation of its ships for 30 days amid port closures and travel restrictions surrounding COVID-19.

Holland America planned to dock the ship in Juneau for a few weeks starting around the end of March.

The ship left the Philippines earlier this month with no passengers, and has about 700 crew or contract staff on board who tested negative for the COVID-19 virus in mid-February, the company said.