Timeline: Looking back at six months of COVID-19 in Alaska

Today marks six months since Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced Alaska’s first known case of COVID-19, an international traveler to Anchorage. At a press conference, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said the man was an “isolated case.” Dunleavy urged Alaskans not to panic.

Everything changed then, and quickly.

Fixtures of our lives fell like dominoes: For the first time in its 46 years, there would be no Alaska Folk Festival. Alaska’s largest basketball tournament was called off. And Canada closed its ports to large cruise ships, casting a pall over the 2020 cruise season.

Then Dunleavy closed schools.

“What we’re basically doing is expanding spring break,” he said on March 15.

Sky Womack, of Juneau Urgent & Family Care, administers a drive-up test for coronavirus on Thursday, March 19, 2020 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Alicia McGuire)
Sky Womack, of Juneau Urgent & Family Care, administers a drive-up test for coronavirus on Thursday, March 19, 2020 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Alicia McGuire)

For many, this past half-year has seemed far, far longer. The measures we’ve taken to stop the virus have left people stuck at home working remotely, caring for children or — for far too many — with no job left to go to.

And all of this coincided with a relentlessly wet summer and one of the worst fishing seasons since statehood.

There have been 6,113 resident cases in Alaska, and 43 Alaskans have lost their lives. Alaska has seen outbreaks in fish plants, homeless shelters and the Anchorage Pioneer Home. In Juneau, 17% of businesses say they’re in danger of closing.

The virus has yet to take off in Alaska like it has in the Lower 48, but Alaskans continue to live with the restrictions on daily living that keep it that way — and with the anxiety of not knowing what course the pandemic will take or how long it will last.

Six months in, we thought now was a good time to pause and take stock of where we are — and to look back on how we got here.

A whole cruise season gone

Juneau announced its first case on March 22, and its hunker down order went into effect two days later. But a larger blow had already landed.

On March 13, Canada had closed its ports to large cruise ships until July 1. U.S. maritime laws prohibit international cruise ships from carrying U.S. citizens between American ports like Seattle and Skagway. With Canadian ports closed, most cruise ships could not come to Alaska.

Two weeks later, the Port of Seattle delayed its cruise season “until the resolution of the public health emergency.” A No Sail order from the CDC followed, and the major cruise lines all announced there would be no sailings in 2020.

Cruise season was effectively canceled.

This meant at least 90% of Southeast’s anticipated visitors would not be coming, and neither would the $800 million or so that cruise passengers were expected to spend in Alaska this year.

Instead of bringing up workers from out of state, Southeast tourism businesses were laying off their year-round staff.

The Wilderness Adventurer, a small cruise ship operated by Seattle-based UnCruise.
The Wilderness Adventurer, a small cruise ship operated by Seattle-based UnCruise. (Courtesy Uncruise)

An economic report published by Southeast Conference in June said that 17% of Juneau businesses said they were at risk of closing over the next 12 months — and that number was 23% across Southeast.

The towns that rely most on the cruise industry — like Haines and Skagway — were hit hardest.

Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata pointed out that even in a best-case scenario, with cruise ships returning in 2021, Skagway would go “17 months without any real revenue.”

Even the one glimmer of hope faded fast. On August 1, a small ship operated by Uncruise left Juneau with a wilderness itinerary and plenty of COVID-19 precautions in place. It was supposed to be a model for how cruise ships could still operate during the pandemic.

Four days later, the Wilderness Adventurer was back in port after one of  its 36 passengers tested positive.

 

Bringing up fisheries workers without bringing up COVID

COVID-19 did not stop the fishing season.

Fishing communities worried about bringing in thousands of workers from out of state, but strict quarantine procedures and closed campuses appeared to keep COVID-19 from spreading from facilities to surrounding communities — at least in places where fishing operations could be self-contained.

The American Triumph — a 285-foot factory trawler, with an onboard processing plant — sits in the Port of Dutch Harbor on Friday, waiting for clinic staff to test the remaining members of its 119-person crew. (Photo by Hope McKenney/KUCB)
The American Triumph — a 285-foot factory trawler, with an onboard processing plant — sits in the Port of Dutch Harbor on Friday. More than two-thirds of its tested positive for COVID-19. (Photo by Hope McKenney/KUCB)

Other places, where local residents worked alongside seasonal workers from out-of-state, saw some of the state’s largest outbreaks. At Copper River Seafoods in Anchorage, most of the plant workers tested positive — and health officials said the outbreak was likely adding to community transmission. At the Alaska Glacier Seafoods plant in Juneau, more than 60 employees tested positive.

There are also questions about whether companies mistreated workers. One company settled out of court after it was sued for false imprisonment and failing to pay workers after forcing them to quarantine in Los Angeles on their way to Bristol Bay. And in Petersburg, some workers said they were not told they’d be confined to their campuses until they got there.

While the industry’s precautions were largely successful in not driving outbreaks in Alaska, the salmon season itself was a failure. Prices were low, and there just weren’t enough fish.

No childcare, and no in-person school

On April 9, Gov. Dunleavy announced that schools would stay closed through the end of the school year. In May, the education commissioner presented a framework to guide their plans for the 2020 – 2021 school year.

This gave districts a few months to plan for fall. But without knowing how much the virus would spread over the summer, districts had to plan for contingencies ranging from in-person school to remote learning to some hybrid of the two.

And all of this came with questions about whether students would show up for online learning — and if all students would have the resources they needed to participate.

Siblings Timothy Ackerman, left, and James Ackerman, ages 5 and 4, follow classes at home via distance learning in the spring of 2020.
Siblings Timothy Ackerman, left, and James Ackerman, ages 5 and 4, follow classes at home via distance learning in the spring of 2020. (Photo by Sue Ackerman)

In late July, Juneau still planned to start school with a mix of remote and in-person learning. The district changed course on August 4, when Superintendent Bridget Weiss announced school would start with distance learning only. The earliest that large numbers of students could be back in school currently stands at October 16.

Add to that uncertainty about budgets. With fewer students enrolled — and more enrolled students choosing homeschool options that are compensated by the state at lower rates — school districts are expecting to see their budgets cut. Anchorage could lose millions.

Meanwhile, Juneau was still searching for solutions to its child care crisis. A fact-finding group had studied the problem and recommended that the borough dedicate staff to craft a solution.

This left parents largely on their own. As public officials cast about for solutions, parents are turning to social media to form child care pods with other families.

Where are we now?

All of this just scratches the surface. The last six months have seen a patchwork of mask orders, ever-changing travel restrictions and a struggle to find help for residents and businesses in crisis.

And that’s come with deep divisions about how to balance safety and controlling spread with keeping businesses open and leading more normal lives. Some even dispute the most basic, known facts about the virus.

A cot inside of the Rainforest Recovery Center on Monday, April 7, 2020 in Juneau, Alaska. City officials converted the drug and alcohol rehabilitation center into an emergency spillover shelter for COVID-19 patients at Bartlett Regional Hospital. The shelter is designed to house patients who don’t need critical medical care. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Alaska – and Southeast – began the fight against COVID-19 by pulling up the drawbridge. Alaska’s isolation and its travel policies have controlled spread better in than most other states, but six months in, it’s clear that COVID-19 has swum the moat.

We’re running far more stories now from around the state about cases tied to community spread, not travel. The task for officials and residents alike is finding the right balance between living our lives and protecting everyone’s lives — for who knows how long.

Starting Sept. 12th, Juneau ordered bars closed for two weeks. That’s after employees of more than one bar caught COVID-19 at a social gathering.

KTOO’s Pablo Arauz Peña and Jennifer Pemberton contributed to this story.

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