Alaska event organizers weigh public health in deciding whether to cancel

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink stresses the importance of slowing the spread of the coronavirus at a news conference at Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s Anchorage office on Wednesday. Zink said on Tuesday that state public health workers are on the phone daily with groups weighing whether to cancel or postpone events due to the virus. (Photo by Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska organizations are weighing whether to cancel or postpone conferences, sports tournaments and other events as the coronavirus response escalates rapidly. And they’re relying on state public health leaders to help make those decisions.

Alaska’s annual state basketball tournaments were a week away when organizers made the call on Wednesday to postpone the March Madness events.

Billy Strickland leads the Alaska School Activities Association. He said the association relied on advice from the state Department of Health and Social Services.

“Working with the state on how we’re going to try to keep people as safe as possible, it really becomes a pretty easy decision at that point, as unfortunate as it is,” he said.

Strickland’s group’s decision was one of the most prominent of the many decisions Alaska groups are having to make about special events, conferences and sports tournaments that bring people together.

And he has a piece of advice for these groups.

“You know, to use a current catchphrase: Stay in your lane,” Strickland said. “We’re not doctors, we’re not people that really understand this. When we’re being told stuff by experts, we need to heed their advice.”

The state has not issued a blanket recommendation to cancel mass public gatherings.

But state Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said Alaskans should be working together to reduce the risk from the virus. The goal is to reduce the disease’s peak in the state, so that the health care system has the capacity to treat patients.

“We are on the phone with conferences, sporting events, travel agencies, the North Slope, industry, cruise lines on a daily basis,” she said.

The advice looks different depending on who the gathering attracts.

“Part of it depends on what that group looks like,” Zink said. “So, right now, if we had a group of people in their 70s with significant medical conditions who are having a close gathering, we would highly discourage that. We wouldn’t prohibit it at this time, but we would very highly discourage that, because that is a higher risk group.”

Other groups would get an OK from the state.

“That’s different than kids going outside to go sledding. And they’re spread apart and they’re young and they’re healthy and they’re lower risk,” she said.

Zink said on Wednesday the state will mandate closing events if that becomes necessary, but it’s not there at this point.

“Right now, we’re not mandating anything. We’re trying to get that information out there,” she said. “I really believe that Alaskans are better off when they’ll be able to make some of those (decisions) themselves, rather than just coming out and saying, ‘This is what’s going to change all at once.’”

Some organizations that haven’t postponed or canceled events have posted online that they will take steps to lessen the risk of spreading diseases. And organizations whose events are further in the future have more time to make decisions. For example, Sealaska Heritage Institute’s board will decide in mid-April on whether to postpone or cancel Celebration, its biennial gathering scheduled for mid-June.


Andrew Kitchenman

State Government Reporter, Alaska Public Media & KTOO

State government plays an outsized role in the life of Alaskans. As the state continues to go through the painful process of deciding what its priorities are, I bring Alaskans to the scene of a government in transition.

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