State extends school closures to May 1

Advisory urges avoidance of all unnecessary travel within and outside of Alaska

A school closure extending to March 30 was ordered by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. (March 13, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

State officials on Friday, March 20 ordered all schools in Alaska to remain closed through May 1 and urged residents to halt all non-essential travel, in an effort to stem the number of positive cases of novel coronavirus, which reached a total of 14.

Mandates issued by state officials said students would receive instruction through distance delivery methods, and that all after school activities would be suspended for the same period. Confirmation of two more people testing positive for the virus, which has now impacted people in over 100 countries worldwide, prompted the Dunleavy administration to place restrictions on a number of businesses in the Fairbanks North Star Borough and the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, where the two individuals who tested positive reside. Restrictions for those two boroughs also include no gatherings of more than 10 people and that people engaged in any gathering must be six feet apart.

According to Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, the Ketchikan case was travel related. The Fairbanks case was still being evaluated.

None of the 14 individuals who have tested positive were reported to be hospitalized.

The emphasis in news conferences called by Gov. Mike Dunleavy in Juneau and Mayor Ethan Berkowitz in Anchorage was on precautions everyone must continue to take to contain the spread of the virus, by staying at home as much as possible and when outside of home maintaining a six foot distance from all other people.

State officials urged everyone to avoid all non-essential travel out of state and within the state, noting that more than 80 percent of the proven COVID-19 cases detected so far in Alaska came from out of state, primarily from the Lower 48.

They also advised that any tourist and non-essential business travel to Alaska be suspended and that visitors to Alaska return to their home communities now. Airlines offering interstate travel were mandated to post this recommendation to their customers on their web pages and at airports, and tour operators were told to suspend reservations for any out of state visitors.

Any Alaska workers returning from out-of-state travel, as well as any visitors to the state were told to self-isolate for 14 days after arriving in Alaska.

The health advisory does not apply to medical personal or business emergencies.

Meanwhile the state was dealing also with a shortage of COVID-19 testing swabs. Due to the global demand, it is uncertain when more testing swabs will be available in Alaska, and Anchorage alone was expected to run out of testing swabs by Sunday, March 22. Anchorage officials were urging any medical provider who had nasopharyngeal swabs with synthetic tips with non-wooden shafts to bring them to a drive through test site at a midtown location.

The socio-economic impact of the slow spread of the coronavirus was being felt statewide, with high demand for items ranging from toilet paper, paper towels and bottled water to rice, pasta and cleaning products. Supermarkets and Costco stores placed limits on how much of certain products shoppers could buy.

In the wake of state orders to close eating establishments and bars for indoor service, a number of restaurants and fast food entities began posting the availability of takeout and delivery services. Many people who felt themselves to be at greater risk of the virus because of health issues were sheltering in their homes, ordering anything they needed through delivery services. Gyms also were ordered shut and were posting exercise options on their websites.

Precautionary measures which have limited service or prompted some businesses, including Alyeska ski resort south of Anchorage and shopping malls to close have resulted in sudden job loss for many workers who live paycheck to paycheck, putting a huge demand on food pantries, and raising concerns among those workers on how they would survive economically.

The Alaska House of Representatives on Thursday, March 19 passed a bill that would assure that those thousands of workers would receive unemployment insurance as quickly as possible.

State and local governments meanwhile were offering guidelines on how to stay socially connected while maintaining physical distance between people, including hiking, bicycle riding and other outdoor activities.