The rhythm of Alaska’s economy is deeply seasonal. Tens of thousands of people arrive each summer for jobs in fish processing, tourism and other industries.
The COVID-19 pandemic means that far fewer workers will arrive than usual, particularly in the hard-hit tourism sector, but Alaska, which has one of the lowest rates of infection in the nation, is still about to see a deluge of people arriving from places with higher infection rates.
Many of them will be in the fishing industry. The summer salmon harvest appears to be proceeding at close to normal levels, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration says it’s working to reduce the risks posed by the seasonal workers who do show up.
“This is a question about levels of risk that Alaska is willing to tolerate,” said Bryan Fisher, the incident commander for Alaska’s pandemic response. He added, “I will say that the business industry, and the critical infrastructure industry, has done an amazing job putting measures in place to be able to accommodate the number and quantity of workers that are heading up this way.”
Workers arriving from elsewhere have driven COVID-19 infection in other places around the world, notably in Singapore, where authorities have been unable to contain the spread of the virus in worker dormitories.
Alaska’s workforce is by far the most seasonal in the country, with 1.15 jobs in the peak summer months for every one job in winter, according to a report published this week by the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. That translated into about 355,000 jobs last summer, compared to 310,000 the previous January, said Neal Fried, an economist with the department.
Many of those positions are in fish processing, which scales up to 20,000 jobs during the summer from 3,000 during the winter months, Fried added.
“We’re talking about a pretty large workforce that’s assembled in a relatively short period of time,” he said.
Nearly three-fourths of fish processors are non-residents, according to the state.
With the near-complete cancelation of Alaska’s cruise season so far, Fisher, the incident commander, expects that the number of incoming tourism workers will be far smaller this year.
For people coming into Alaska from outside the state, there’s one piece of guidance that’s paramount, Fisher said: a two-week quarantine after arrival.
“The testing strategies and the care and treatment strategies, we also have them in place,” he said. “But there really is nothing that indicates a level of risk mitigation more than complying with that 14-day quarantine period.”
The fish processing industry’s major trade group, the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, didn’t respond to an interview request. But in a prepared statement, it said most companies are planning on a two-week quarantine for workers.
“Alaska processors have been working to develop and implement plans to protect the health of the communities in which we operate, as well as that of our employees,” said the statement, sent by Nicole Kimball, an Anchorage-based vice president. “Companies are also focused on retaining as much of a resident workforce as possible, and trying to limit movement of workers between seasons to avoid unnecessary risk associated with travel.”
The two-week quarantine is currently a requirement for anyone coming into the state. But essential industries, which include fishing, can be exempted if companies can get emergency managers to approve a plan that shows how they’ll put people to work without risking the spread of COVID-19.
Fisher said sometimes people can’t quarantine because of the urgent nature of their work: He gave an example of seasonal workers who fly into rural Alaska communities to watch for flooding, as part of a program called River Watch.
“If you need to work before the 14-day quarantine period, you need to do all of your handwashing, all of that — you need to wear a mask, you need to socially distance as practical as possible,” Fisher said. “If you’re in our state, we expect you to go to work, get your work done and go back to your hotel or your lodging.”
Some local officials in fishing towns have said they’re frustrated that they haven’t always been able to get access to the COVID-19 protection plans that companies are sending to Fisher’s team at the state.
“There should be nothing behind closed doors on something like that,” David Powell, an Assembly member in the Southeast Alaska town of Wrangell told KSTK.
Fisher said the state has to weigh transparency against its obligation to not release confidential industry information, like how companies keep their workplaces secure.
“We’re trying to balance the need to have all of that stuff out and available for everybody’s review, while protecting the data that does need to be protected,” he said.
Southeast Alaska is one of the state’s busiest areas for seafood and tourism. And the region’s major health-care provider, the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, has started working directly with industry as things start to open up, says Chief Medical Officer Dr. Elliot Bruhl.
“We’re beginning the process of creating a dialogue with all those different commercial groups, in hopes of coming up with solutions that meet their needs and provide for increased safety,” he said.
SEARHC initially questioned one seafood company’s plans to bring hundreds of seasonal workers to Sitka, with Bruhl calling it “contradictory to medical reason.” But he said in a phone interview Tuesday that companies have responded to the consortium’s recommendations to reduce risks, like bringing in workers in smaller groups instead of all at once.
Communities and companies that are working with the consortium have been thoughtful and sincere in their efforts to get things as right as possible, Bruhl said. But there are no guarantees, and decisions about what level of risk is acceptable are made through a political process, he said.
“There’s no perfect solutions. This is what it is — it’s a disease, it’s a medical problem, so it really doesn’t matter what our opinion is about it,” Bruhl said. “The reality is, we’re trying to come up with good solutions that can be practically integrated.”
Fisher, the incident commander, said officials are watching closely as the fishing season ramps up around Alaska. And if certain things aren’t working to limit the spread of the pandemic, the state will change plans accordingly, he added.
Officials have been reviewing the failures to contain the spread of COVID-19 at Outside meat plants, and they’re adjusting protocols for fish processing to potentially include fewer people and barriers between them, Fisher said.
“Everything is dynamic and fluid,” he said. “If we see that the protocols we’ve agreed to with industry and with government for some reason weren’t working, we are absolutely willing to adjust those as we move throughout the summer.”