Update — Rashah McChesney, KTOO
Several state departments are suspending certain fees and fines through May 11 in response to the dramatic economic pressure on Alaskans.
Details of the plan were laid out by members of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration during a Friday press conference centered around his economic stabilization plan — a response to the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic.
Department of Labor and Workforce Development Director Tamika Ledbetter said the state has seen a surge in unemployment claims. This week, they processed around 14,000 new applications for unemployment.
“This unprecedented turn of events has really put a strain on our unemployment system,” Ledbetter said.
People have reported long wait times, clogging up the department’s phone lines — especially from Alaskans who are unfamiliar with the state’s online web portal.
Ledbetter said they’re working to scale up the unemployment insurance office.
“I have moved staff from other divisions within the Department of Labor,” she said. “We are asking retirees to return to help us to process these claims. We’re hiring additional staff to take care of the influx of workload that we now have.”
There are also a lot of changes in the way the state collects fees and fines, including:
- The Department of Environmental Conservation is deferring payments on loans to Alaska communities who borrowed money from the state to finance water and sewer system improvements.
- The approximately 90,000 people who are on AlaskaCare health insurance have new telemedicine benefits and won’t pay any costs for COVID-19 treatment.
State officials also talked about several state and federal loan programs available to help businesses. But for businesses that don’t want to take out loans and may not be financially able to pay them back — Dunleavy said there may be other help on the way.
He said the state is “working through the process,” specifically with tourism operators that probably won’t make much money this year.
“It’s an ongoing evaluation as to what sectors in Alaska need what type of aid,” Dunleavy said. “So we’ll have more information on that probably early next week.”
The number of Alaskans diagnosed with COVID-19 grew to 157 by Friday — no new deaths were reported. The state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said that figure now includes 16 people who have recovered from the virus.
Zink outlined a new health alert — recommending that Alaskans wear face coverings in public. She pointed to increasing scientific evidence that people who have no symptoms or very mild symptoms are still spreading the virus.
She stressed that the masks won’t prevent people from getting the virus. But it could prevent them from spreading it.
“We really just have to assume we all have COVID and we could be spreading it,” she said.
Zink said the masks should be worn in places where social distancing is difficult to do, like grocery stores. The health alerts are not mandates — they’re suggestions from the state to help keep people from spreading the virus.
The recommendations for wearing and caring for a mask include:
- Making sure the mask covers both your nose and mouth
- Keeping it it on until you get home
- Removing it by grabbing the ear loops or ties that hold it on and then immediately storing it to be washed
- Washing hands before touching anything else
These recommendations are new and run counter to what state and federal medical officials have said in the past. But the state’s new recommendations mirror new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines asking people to wear cloth or fabric face coverings in public.
Up until now, state and federal medical officials have avoided asking people to wear masks. In part because the country is experiencing a critical shortage of face masks.
Zink asked Alaskans to avoid seeking out medical-grade N95 masks.
“The surgical masks, we’re really making sure that people in health care who are taking care of the most vulnerable have those masks,” she said. “But I think this partnership, with people being able to make masks or even using a balaclava — some sort of way to prevent their spread will help us to get to a better point.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s latest COVID-19 news conference is scheduled for 5 p.m.
The governor, Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink have been holding these briefings almost daily since March 10.
They’ll be joined on Friday by members of Dunleavy’s cabinet including Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Tamika Ledbetter; Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jason Brune; Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka; Natural Resources Commissioner Corri Feige; Commerce, Community and Economic Development Commissioner Julie Anderson; and Transportation Commissioner John MacKinnon.
During these briefings, Dunleavy’s administration shares updates on the number of people in the state with confirmed cases, announces public health mandates and explains the administration’s strategy and rationale.
To date, they’ve imposed 12 public health mandates that have reshaped daily life across Alaska to combat the spread of the virus. Those mandates and other Alaska-specific COVID-19 resources and information are available at coronavirus.alaska.gov.
While it’s not a mandate, Zink said on Thursday that Alaskans should wear masks in public. This, she said, is based on data showing that COVID-19 appears to be largely spread by people who have few or no symptoms, but carry the virus.
The headline for this story has been updated.