A sign at the Pratt Museum’s nature trail on May 15, 2020, in Homer, Alaska, is part of the City of Homer’s campaign to increase awareness of precautions to take during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

A sign at the Pratt Museum’s nature trail on May 15, 2020, in Homer, Alaska, is part of the City of Homer’s campaign to increase awareness of precautions to take during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Governor announces major reopening of Alaska

With no new cases of COVID-19 reported on Tuesday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced that night that Alaska will move into phase three of the state’s reopening plan on Friday.

“For all intents and purposes we’re opening up business,” Dunleavy said at a press conference on Tuesday in Anchorage. “… It will be open just like it was prior to the virus.”

Phase three takes effect at 8 a.m. Friday at the start of the Memorial Day weekend. It allows all businesses to reopen at 100% capacity, including houses of worship and religious gatherings, libraries and museums, and recreational and sports activities.

Dunleavy said he wanted to encourage Alaskans to support state businesses “by buying Alaskan, travelling Alaskan, going out to eat in Alaska.”

However, Alaskans are still being asked to practice health and hygiene protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to a press release from Dunleavy on May 19. That includes staying 6-feet apart form non-household members, washing hands frequently, sanitizing and cleaning high-touch surfaces frequently, staying home if sick, getting tested if you have symptoms, wearing face coverings in public places when near others, and being mindful and respectful to those vulnerable to the disease, such as the elderly and those with health conditions. Official guidance will be released on Thursday at the state COVID-19 website at covid19.alaska.gov/reopen.

“We’re still asking Alaskans as we have the past several weeks to work with all of us to keep that virus at bay and avoid all unnecessary contact with others to keep that virus from spreading,” Dunleavy said at the press conference.

On Monday, Dunleavy said following such guidelines in Alaska have always been up to individuals.

“We’ve got some pretty good results as a result of Alaskans working collectively and individually,” he said.

Alaska hasn’t taken a heavy hand enforcing mandates like other states, Dunleavy said.

“We don’t think in Alaska we have to do that,” he said.

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink said on Monday the state’s approach has been through education and information.

“We don’t direct how people should live their lives,” she said.

The DHSS report on Tuesday did not include a report that morning of an inmate at the Anchorage Correctional Complex who was confirmed positive, according to a press release from the Alaska Department of Corrections.

Cases reported by the state’s Department of Health and Social Services reflect data collected between midnight and 11:59 p.m. the day before, and are posted at noon every day on the Alaska Coronavirus Response Hub. DOC was notified of the positive test result from the Anchorage inmate Tuesday morning, according to the release, so this case will be included in Wednesday’s case count.

This is the second inmate in DOC custody to test positive for the virus, with the first being an inmate at Goose Creek Correctional Facility in Wasilla that was reported on April 26.

DOC is working with the State Section of Epidemiology and Public Health officials to begin the contact investigation, according to the release.

Sarah Gallagher, public information officer for DOC, said Tuesday that 51 inmates at Anchorage Correctional Complex have been tested for COVID-19, and 441 inmates have been tested statewide.

At a press conference on Monday, Dunleavy explained why Alaska is in a position to reopen more widely.

“Our numbers are very low,” Dunleavy said. “… We’re not rushing things. We’re looking at the numbers. It would be a different story if we have a thousand cases.”

Dunleavy said that when the pandemic first hit Alaska, the emphasis then was to build the capacity of the state health care system so hospitals and health care workers could respond to a surge of COVID-19 cases if that happened. Alaska now has that capacity, he said. The phase three reopening will start to bring Alaska back to normal.

“Pretty soon I think you’ll recognize the Alaska we once had,” he said.

Other mandates will remain in effect, including mandate 10 on international and interstate travel. That requires travelers coming to Alaska from Outside to self-quarantine for 14-days and file a plan indicating how they will do so. That mandate had earlier been extended to June 2. On Tuesday Dunleavy said he’s working with air carriers and airports to come up with new protocols to allow travelers to come in from the rest of the country as soon as possible.

“Sooner or later before the June 2 deadline we hope — we hope — to have that taken care of,” he said.

In response to a question on Tuesday by Frontiersman reporter Tim Rockey in Palmer about if the Alaska State Fair could reopen, and if large concerts could be held, Dunleavy said that officials also are discussing how that could happen.

“I hope so. We are beginning those discussions,” Dunleavy said. “… Things are going to be a little different for all of us, not just in the state but across the world.”

As far as large gatherings like the state fair or Ninilchik’s Salmonfest that take place outdoors, Dunleavy said, “We’re going to have to figure out a way to make that work. … We’re having those discussions. We’re working with the folks who are putting those large gatherings on.”

Though Dunleavy was optimistic about Alaska reopening, he also tempered that enthusiasm with some caution.

“The virus is with us. We must function with it and manage it,” he said in Tuesday’s press release. “There will be folks who contract the virus and fall ill, but if we follow these guidelines, we can help lower potential cases and keep our way of life intact with a few exceptions.”

Zink reiterated the seriousness of the pandemic.

“I think it’s important to remember this pandemic is not over and that it continues to exist,” she said. “… I think the more ways that we can be healthy and happy together and the ways that we can have that individual and personal responsibility and step up that personal and environmental mitigation, the better off we can be.”

With the Memorial Day holiday weekend coming up and people possibly wanting to hold group picnics, Zink was asked at Monday’s press conference what advice she has for people considering gathering in larger numbers.

“I know this disease exists,” she said. “There’s a pandemic going on … I’m making the choice not to be in those large gatherings. I hope that people choose to make their friends and loved ones safe over this holiday weekend.”

Though Alaska is moving toward reopening, Dunleavy said that doesn’t mean a return to normal with no chance of more cases.

“The idea is we live with this until there’s a vaccination and we manage it. We don’t let it manage us,” he said on Monday. “… We’re not going to let the pandemic win. … We will come out of this a stronger Alaska, a stronger country.”

Alaska by the numbers

The state’s total case count, including the ACC inmate that was reported Tuesday morning, is now at 400. The majority of cases, 348, have fully recovered, and 10 Alaskans have died after contracting the virus.

Sixteen people who are either COVID positive or are under investigation are currently hospitalized, and 43 total hospitalizations have been attributed to the disease since the state began tracking the outbreak.

A total of 36,380 tests for COVID-19 have been conducted statewide as of Tuesday.

On the Kenai Peninsula, 26 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed. Two are residents of Anchor Point, four are Homer residents, six are Kenai residents, three are Seward residents, six are from Soldotna, three are from Sterling and two are listed as “other” that had previously been identified as Homer cases.

Cases within communities of less than 1,000 people are included in the count for their designated borough or census area but are not individually reported. Even if people might list their residence as a peninsula city, if their actual address is within a census district, the state uses that census district to identify their residency.

Locally, South Peninsula Hospital had sent 760 samples off for testing as of Tuesday, according to SPH Public Information Officer Derotha Ferraro. Of those, five total tests have come back positive, 711 have come back negative and 44 tests are still pending.

Reach Brian Mazurek and bmazurek@peninsulaclarion.com. Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.

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