Update — On July 28, 2020, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced that starting August 11th, nonresident travelers to the state will be required to have a negative COVID-19 test.
For more than two months, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration has required people traveling to Alaska from out of state to quarantine for two weeks once they get here. But, that changed Saturday.
The state is now allowing visitors to get tested for COVID-19, instead of quarantining, if they’re taking a flight to Alaska.
It’s a complicated new policy, and many questions remain about how exactly it will work. Also, late Friday, the Municipality of Anchorage announced its own rules for travelers that are largely similar to the state’s, but with some extra restrictions, including where travelers can go until they get a follow-up test.
Here is some of what we know so far about the new guidelines:
What are the alternatives to quarantining?
Let’s start with the options for testing ahead of time, according to the state:
• You can get a PCR test — the swab that goes up your nose — within 72 hours of your flight, and bring proof of the negative result with you. (Yes, that 72-hour clock starts when you get tested, not when you get the result back, confirmed Heidi Hedberg, the state’s director of public health.) In a FAQ document, the state bills it as the “fastest and safest way to ensure your ability to explore Alaska right away.” The state says you need to “minimize your interactions” until you get a negative result from a second test to be taken 7 to 14 days after your arrival.
• If you need just a little more time, the state is accepting results from PCR tests taken up to five days before departure. But, if it’s more than 72 hours, you’ll still have to take a second test when you get to the airport and minimize your interactions until that result comes back. Also, the state says, you should continue to minimize your interactions until 14 days have passed or until you get results from a third test taken at least 7 days after your arrival.
The state says it’s giving out vouchers at airports for the follow-up tests.
What if I don’t get my results back in time for my flight?
The state says in its FAQ document: “You can quarantine at arrival until the results arrive. Once you provide the results to the state, your quarantine is over.”
And, if I can’t get tested ahead of time?
You can quarantine for two weeks in Alaska. Or, get tested at the airport when you arrive and quarantine until the result comes back. But the state cautions that test availability is not a guarantee.
On Friday afternoon, Hedberg said she wasn’t concerned about having enough swabs for visitors — at least right now. At a recent news conference, however, Alaska’s chief medical officer said availability could change if coronavirus cases surge in the state.
“We are going to do our absolute best to have testing available,” said Dr. Anne Zink. “But if we have a huge spike in cases and we have to do a bunch of case investigations, Alaskans come first.”
Do people have to pay to get tested at the airport?
No, Hedberg said.
How long will it take to get results back if I opt to test when I get here?
It could take anywhere from a few hours to a few days, the state says. Hedberg said Friday that tests sent to the state lab were taking 24 to 48 hours to return, but “those timelines are kind of constantly varying.”
Will the state find me a place to quarantine?
No, Hedberg said. That’s on you and at your own expense. It could be in a hotel room or a home, but it cannot be in a RV that is moving from place to place.
Is anybody tracking where I quarantine?
The state has rolled out a new declaration form. (Check it out here.) Hedberg said travelers should print it out and bring it with them. The state is also working with airlines to have it available on planes.
If you are quarantining, you write down the address you’ll be staying at, Hedberg said.
However, as the Anchorage Daily News reported, the quarantine requirement relies on voluntary cooperation and not enforcement.
What does quarantining actually mean? Can I go to the grocery store?
Hedberg said it means you don’t go out in the public unless it is for medical care.
“Stay at your residence. Stay at that location until you can get your results. Do not go to the grocery store,” she said.
What if my result comes back positive?
If you test positive, you have to quarantine for 14 days or until a health official clears you after a subsequent, negative test result, says the state’s FAQ.
“We strongly encourage travelers to obtain a test prior to travel to reduce the possibility of this occurring,” the document says.
Does my whole family have to get tested?
Everybody age two and older has to get tested to be released from the 14-day quarantine requirement, says the FAQ document.
So, what will the airport look like now?
There will be many more employees at airports in Alaska. The City and Borough of Juneau is hiring temporary workers to meet, greet and screen passengers. At the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, the state has hired Capstone Family Medicine to provide screening.
“We’re going to have 58 people working 12-hour shifts supporting this project,” said Dennis Spencer, Capstone chief executive.
In Anchorage, greeters will direct travelers to areas in the terminal where they hand in their declaration forms, Spencer said. Staff will also review testing results and provide testing and vouchers if needed. Spencer didn’t have an estimate Friday for how long it will take someone to go through the process. It was too soon, he said.
“This is new to all of us. I don’t want to give you bad information,” he said. “But we’re gonna make sure that we do this as quickly as we possibly can.”
Wait. What if I’m an Alaskan who’s leaving for a trip?
The state says you should check the local rules for where you’re headed.
If you’re an Alaska resident flying back from a trip out of state that was five days or less, you don’t have to get tested out of state. You can either quarantine for 14 days back in Alaska or get the PCR test in the terminal when you return, quarantining until you get the result, according to the state’s mandate. You will also get a voucher for a second test to be taken 7 to 14 days after you return, and you should minimize your interactions until you get that second result.
If your trip is longer, you have the same array of options as visitors.
So does this only apply to me if I’m taking a flight to Alaska?
For now, the testing infrastructure is only at airports, Hedberg said on Friday. She said the state is still asking people driving to Alaska to fill out the declaration forms and to get tested ahead of time.
But there isn’t any testing at border crossings, Hedberg said. At least, not yet. There aren’t that many people driving into Alaska, with Canadian borders closed to non-essential travel.
“We’re taking this in sort of a staggered, tiered approach,” Hedberg said. “We’re really focusing on air and we’re making sure that we’re hitting the major airports in planning and setting up this infrastructure.”
Next week, she said, the state will focus on smaller communities. Then it will look at border crossings and seaports.
“We’ve got to take small bites,” she said.
Can local governments set their own rules?
Yes. The state is advising travelers to check with their final destinations to learn about any local restrictions.
Anchorage issued its emergency order for international and interstate travel Friday night. Its rules are tighter than the state’s. Here are two of the main differences:
• The city has defined what minimizing in-person interactions means. In Anchorage, it means you can’t dine-in at restaurants or visit indoor attractions like museums or theaters. You also need to wear face coverings when around non-household members. That applies to travelers who are waiting for their second or third test results.
• The city says people getting to Anchorage within 14 days of arrival in Alaska must inform their hotel or rental lodging of their quarantine status and whether they’re required to minimize in-person interactions. The city says businesses may refuse to serve people who are in quarantine or “minimal-interaction status.”
Do these travel requirements have an expiration date?
Not right now. Gov. Mike Dunleavy said at a recent news conference that the state will re-evaluate the requirements every day and watch the number of coronavirus cases in Alaska, monitoring for a spike. Anchorage’s rules stay in effect until changed.
What do I do if it’s too hard to get testing in my home state?
Know that you are not alone.
Hedberg, the director of public health, said the state has received an overwhelming number of calls from people with similar concerns.
“That’s why we have testing available at the airports,” she said, “to make sure that they are tested.”
What about these vouchers?
Travelers will get them at the airport and use them for a second or third test to be taken 7 to 14 days after their arrival. The voucher will cover the cost of the test if insurance does not, according to the state’s FAQ.
The FAQ says the follow-up test is strongly recommended, but not required. However, the city and state say that additional negative test is needed to lift restrictions on minimizing interactions.
The state has a testing site locator on its website.
And what about out-of-state workers coming to Alaska? Do these changes impact them?
The state says workers considered essential or critical need to fill out the new declaration forms, but they will continue to follow their employers’ plans.
Thanks to the readers and listeners who sent in their questions to help inform this story. What did we miss? Email your questions to Tegan Hanlon at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check back for updates as we learn more.