As the state economy is poised to reopen at a limited capacity starting Friday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration announced that Alaskans can also look forward to more freedom to move about between communities within the state.
Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum announced during a Thursday evening press conference that a few modifications have been made to health mandate 11 on social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, and to mandate 12, the mandate that prohibits all non-essential travel within the state of Alaska. Dunleavy has said previously that there are exceptions for those traveling to recreate while maintaining social distancing, but now the mandate is being expanded even more.
Alaskans are now allowed to travel between communities that are on the road system, Crum announced. The state is not encouraging visits to more remote communities — Crum said those communities need to be protected.
“Members of the same household, travelling in a passenger vehicle or car, are permitted to travel between communities and generally on the road system for any purpose,” according to “Attachment M” of health mandate 16. “Including but not limited to recreational or sightseeing activities conducted within the mandate guidelines.”
For people who are not members of the same household, the state is allowing them to “jointly engage” in outdoor activities as long as the group does not exceed 20 people, and people from different households stay at least 6 feet away from each other. People engaging together in outdoor activities also “must adhere” to social distancing protocols and “shall refrain from touching each other and from sharing food or drink.”
People traveling are still encouraged to wash hands, keep things clean, and limit contact with vendors for things like supplies and gasoline.
“Cloth face coverings should be used whenever a traveler engages with a third-party vendor,” the attachment reads.
Another modification to the social distancing mandate allows Alaskans to partake in travel for lodging and overnight camping, such as with RV parks, bed and breakfast establishments, hotels and privately owned campgrounds. The protocols spelling out what’s allowed in terms of using those businesses can be read here: https://gov.alaska.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/COVID-MANDATE-016-Attachment-L-Lodging-and-Overnight-Camping.pdf
Dunleavy and Crum addressed fishing charters specifically in another modification to mandate 16 — Attachment J of mandate 16 outlines social distancing rules and capacity limitations for fishing charters operating at this time.
Charter operations must:
• Have passengers bring their own food/drinks to be kept separate from the crew’s
• Not pass equipment to or share it with passengers, including fishing rods
• Keep 6 feet of distance between all individuals, or maintain as much social distancing as can be accomplished on the vessel
• Have all passengers and crew members wear cloth face coverings
• Establish a COVID-19 Mitigation Plan and post it publicly on the vessel. The posted plan has to clearly state that no one with COVID-19 symptoms is allowed to board.
In terms of capacity, charter boats are allowed to take aboard a full load if the people all live under one roof. If the charter guests come from different households, however, the charter has to limit the number of people allowed on board to 25% of the capacity allowed by its license type, Crum said.
The state also announced mandate 17 on Thursday night, which sets out guidelines for independent commercial fishing vessels. These are all “catcher and tender vessels that have not agreed to operate under a fleet-wide plan submitted by a company, association or entity that represents a fleet of vessels,” according to the mandate.
Mandate 17 sets out a list of protective measures and protocols that commercial fishing vessels must follow in order to operate in Alaska waters and ports. They include things like screening all crew members upon arrival, having out-of-state crew members self quarantine for 14 days prior to fishing, and limiting contact with members of the communities where the vessels are fishing. Crew members who don’t live in those communities aren’t allowed to leave the boat unless it’s essential, for example.
The full list of protocols for commercial fishing vessels can be read here: https://mail.google.com/mail/u/1/#inbox/QgrcJHsTlmBVnShZDtBQtkRbCfGGzlxdvgQ?projector=1&messagePartId=0.1
Vessel captains are required to enact these protective protocols and ensure their crew members adhere to them, according to the mandate. Captains must also sign an acknowledgement form and be able to provide a copy of it to any seafood processing agent or federal, state or local authority figure.
State officials said these protective protocols are the result of working with commercial fishing stakeholders to find solutions for a safe fishing season.
In speaking about these changes and the phased reopening of the economy, Dunleavy said the health of Alaskans will always remain the No. 1 priority.
Some businesses are going to reopen more slowly than others, Dunleavy said. It’s up to business owners to decide when and if they want to reopen based on what’s best for them, he said.
“We’ll adjust across the state if we need to,” Dunleavy said of the potential for clusters or spike of COVID-19 to pop up as the economy reopens. “Certain locales if we need to, certain establishments. But I think most Alaskans, the vast majority of Alaskans, the vast majority of Americans and folks worldwide realize you cannot keep an economy in 2020 turned off and in a coma for an unlimited period of time.”
How’s Homer doing?
Both Homer Mayor Ken Castner and Homer Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Executive Director Center Brad Anderson are cautiously optimistic about Dunleavy’s plan to slowly reopen the economy. Castner said the state has been good about keeping up regular communication with municipalities around Alaska and about taking their input. He said the governor’s plan to reopen parts of the economy slowly is important for combatting the psychological toll the pandemic has been taking on Alaskans.
Castner remains cautious, he said, especially since he’s in the category of older Alaskans who “this virus is out looking for.” Reopening the economy while keeping people safe is a balancing act, he said.
“And if it gets me, I’m got, so I’m not interested in that,” he said. “But I do think that if you keep good data and you keep a solid approach, that we could walk along that crack and not fall through.”
Castner said he’s optimistic for Homer’s economy if Dunleavy can maintain the mandates for out-of-state travelers while allowing Alaskans to embrace travel to other parts of the state.
He gave a lot of credit to Homer’s businesses that were proactive in changing their operation models to account for social distancing and cleanliness to keep the novel coronavirus at bay.
Anderson said Homer area businesses have been proactive in trying to understand the state mandates and taking the necessary steps to adhere to them. He expects they will be successful at policing themselves as they reopen with certain health and safety restrictions in place. No one wants to be the only business in town not following the mandates, Anderson said.
“They are so conscious of what the guidelines are and making sure they’re not doing something that would put their business or the community in jeopardy,” he said.
Anderson said the chamber will continue to be a supportive educational resource for Homer businesses, and will disseminate information from the state as much as possible.
While mandate 16 allows certain businesses to reopen in a limited capacity and with strict health and safety measures, other mandates restricting travel are still in place.
Mandate 11, which requires all Alaskans to work from home as much as possible and practice social distancing of 6 feet or more from others, is in effect “until further notice.” So is mandate 12, which prohibits all non-essential travel within the state, between communities, except for the new exemptions announced Thursday by Crum.
Homer is a summer tourism hub. A mandate in place requiring any out-of-state visitor to self quarantine for 14 days upon arrival could hamper bookings for tourism businesses like fishing charters or bear viewing operations. Crum confirmed during Wednesday’s press conference that the mandatory 14-day quarantine is still in place for anyone visiting Alaska.
“And so, if an individual wants to enter Alaska, go through the quarantine process, and then after that schedule that charter, they’re welcome to do so,” he said.
Anderson said the chamber is fielding lots of calls from potential visitors from the Lower 48 who either don’t fully understand the mandate requiring them to quarantine upon arrival, or don’t know it exists.
“It catches a lot of people off guard,” he said.
Anderson said most people are wondering whether the charter boats will be operating this summer and are asking whether they should cancel their summer reservations. A lot of them have been unaware they would have to self quarantine for 14 days before doing anything in Alaska, he said.
“Yeah, that travel mandate is going to be a big, big challenge,” Anderson said.
It’s also unclear exactly where that particular mandate is going to go, he said. The state can either let it terminate after May 19 or choose to extend it.
Castner pointed out that, even if travel from Outside visitors is restricted this summer, Homer can still depend to a certain extent on visitors from elsewhere in Alaska, now that intrastate travel restrictions have been loosened.
“Homer’s always been Anchorage’s playground,” he said.
Castner said that through work with the Alaska Municipal League, he wants to pursue asking the state to be more involved with the effort to educate potential tourists about the mandated 14-day quarantine upon arrival. Alaska needs a statewide campaign to help potential visitors be more aware of that mandate, he said.
Asked during Thursday’s press conference whether the state plans to be more active in educating potential tourists about the mandatory quarantine, Dunleavy said it’s something his administration could look into.
“If there’s still that many people that have questions, we need to either do a short video, push it out on the internet and really explain that better,” he said. “So we will do that. My staff will make note of that (and) we’ll start doing that, because we want to be able to get people to understand as clearly as possible what it is we’re trying to do.”
Even with travel restrictions in place, Castner said Homer’s economy should be in a relatively OK position this summer. He pointed to the roughly $7.8 million in relief funds that will be coming to Homer as Dunleavy disseminates the $1.25 billion sent to Alaska from the federal coronavirus relief package. That money will help offset a loss of the sales tax dollars Homer usually gets through summer tourism. The Kenai Peninsula as a whole is set to receive more than $37 million.
“I am less worried today than I was two days ago about … not getting our tax revenues that we would normally have in a year,” Castner said.
COVID-19 by the numbers
The Department of Health and Social Services announced two new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the state total up to 337. Those are new cases reported to the state between midnight and 11:59 p.m. on April 22.
Both the new cases are from Anchorage — one is a male child under the age of 10 and the other is a man aged 60-69, DHSS reported.
There have been no additional hospitalizations of people with confirmed cases of COVID-19. However, there are a total 42 people currently being hospitalized for either confirmed cases of the disease, or suspected cases. That number of 42 includes what the state calls “persons under investigation” who have not yet tested positive, but who medical professionals believe likely have the illness.
As of Thursday, 209 Alaskans have recovered from COVID-19, which is the majority of the state’s 337 cases.
On the Kenai Peninsula, 19 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the following communities: Anchor Point (one), Homer (two), Kenai (four), Seward (three), Soldotna (six) and Sterling (three). This includes an Anchor Point resident who died while out of state and a Homer resident who was tested and treated in Anchorage.
The Anchorage municipality has 166 residents who have confirmed positive for COVID-19, which includes four Chugiak residents, eight Eagle River residents and three Girdwood residents. In the Fairbanks North Star Borough, 63 Fairbanks residents have tested positive, as well as 15 North Pole residents and one additional resident of an unspecified community within the borough. In the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Wasilla has 11 cases and Palmer has nine. In the Southeast, Juneau has 27 cases, Ketchikan has 16, Petersburg has three and Craig has two. Delta Junction, Nome, Bethel, Kodiak and the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area each have one case. Communities with fewer than 1,000 residents are included in the total for their borough or census area but not individually reported.
Locally, South Peninsula Hospital had sent 205 total samples off to be tested by Thursday morning, with 183 tests coming back negative and 21 pending.
Reach Megan Pacer at email@example.com.