City shies away from state’s rapid reopening

No plans for complete reopening before June 1

Dr. Anne Zink, right, tours Ilanka Community Health Center. (May 13, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

The city of Cordova’s decision to move itself more closely in sync with state coronavirus policy was tested when Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced his intention to rapidly lift almost all state emergency restrictions on businesses. Tuesday, May 19, Dunleavy announced that venues including churches, libraries and sports facilities would be permitted to reopen at almost full capacity beginning Friday, May 22. A manageable rise in coronavirus cases is expected after reopening, he said.

At a Monday, May 18 special meeting prior to the announcement, city council voted 4-2 to bring its health mandates more closely in line with those of the state. At the recommendation of city medical authorities, council voted to implement “Phase 2” of Alaska’s plan for reopening. Under Phase 2, restrictions on public activities are partially loosened, allowing gatherings of up to 50 people with social distancing, and a limited reopening of restaurants, stores, gyms, bars and libraries. All in-state travel in and out of Cordova is now also permitted. These measures will be closely monitored, and worsening conditions may trigger a rollback, according to a May 19 release from the city.

While council members unanimously supported some relaxation of restrictions on businesses, there was disagreement over Emergency Rule 17, granting the city an up to 10-day period to review new state health mandates before approving them to take effect locally. Under this rule, if the city were to take no action for 10 days on a new state health mandate, that mandate would automatically go into force locally.

Emergency Rule 17 was designed to buy the city time to consider the implications of new state coronavirus mandates, some of which have been implemented within hours of being announced. The governor’s office hasn’t given advance notice to the city concerning new mandates, City Manager Helen Howarth said.

“They make an announcement on a Thursday night, and it goes into play on a Friday morning,” Howarth said. “There was a need to have a bit of a pause, and that request came from incident command, because those decisions were rolling out so fast.”

Councilman David Allison opposed the resolution on the grounds that Emergency Rule 17 would likely tie up the city for days each time the state changed its rules. By lagging behind the state, the city has left major Cordova businesses like Orca Adventure Lodge in an uncertain position, said Councilman Tom Bailer. If the city were simply to follow the state’s mandates, businesses would know what to expect, he said.

“I think some of us need to put ourselves in the position of these businesses that are out of business right now,” Bailer said. “I don’t even know if the restaurants are going to be able to open. It’s going to be tough… I don’t think it’s fair to the businesses and the people of this community that we keep procrastinating and waiting on things.”

Councilwoman Melina Meyer expressed some sympathy for Allison and Bailer’s objections to Emergency Rule 17, but supported the resolution. Other coastal communities around Alaska have also declined to fall in lockstep with the state’s changing mandates, Meyer said. Nonetheless, the resolution signaled a movement toward greater conformity to state health policy.

After two months, hand sanitizer has returned to the shelves of AC Value Center. (May 14, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

A soft reopening

Following Dunleavy’s announcement, the city decided not to proceed beyond Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan until at least June 1. This decision to “softly reopen” Cordova was made after consulting with the city’s incident management team and medical team, according to a Wednesday, May 20 release.

At a city council meeting later that day, Cordova Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cathy Renfeldt said that most businesses seemed to be erring on the side of caution. However, she pointed out that current rules, theoretically allowing restaurants to offer dine-in service, jostle against a local mandate requiring customers to wear face coverings in most restaurant environments. Renfeldt suggested city council consider making a targeted amendment softening rules on face coverings as they apply to restaurants.

The council also heard comment from residents, some of whom opposed the decision to delay further reopening until at least June 1. Wendy Ranney, owner of Orca Adventure Lodge, urged the council to look at businesses on a case-by-case basis rather than making a blanket decision not to reopen further. Quick decision-making by the city could help her salvage her business, she said.

“I understand that your decisions and the things that you do with the running of Cordova with COVID require you to take time,” Ranney said. “The problem is, some of the businesses don’t have time. We have a set season that’s in place, and, when that season is over, the opportunity for us to make enough money to be able to live is gone… The dam’s been opened, and you need to let the state take the lead on this.”

Allison also criticized the city’s reluctance to rapidly reopen, suggesting that, if an outbreak were to take place, the city could address it through new mandates.

“We need to base our decisions on the facts that are out there, not base it on fear,” Allison said. “We’re going into our 11th week of this thing, and we’ve had how many patients at the hospital with a COVID situation? Zero … The fishing industry is gonna happen. Whether we like it or not, it’s gonna happen. We don’t have any control over that at all. Those fishermen are gonna come in.”

Ilanka Community Health Center staff operate an Abbott Laboratories rapid virus testing device. (May 13, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Free testing now available to all

Free coronavirus testing is now available to anyone who feels they need it, according to a May 18 release from the city.

Drive-up testing is available at Cordova Community Medical Center Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 2-4 p.m.; and at Ilanka Community Health Center Mondays and Wednesdays from 2-4 p.m. A testing appointment can be scheduled by phone with CCMC at 907-424-8200 or with Ilanka Community Health Center at 907-424-3622. Additional testing times are available for patients experiencing any coronavirus-related symptoms, according to the release.

“Just because you get a negative test result back doesn’t mean that you should drop the social distancing, mask or that you’re all clear to just move freely, because you think that you don’t have it or won’t get it,” Meyer said. “That one positive test that we did get in Cordova, it was their second test. They’d already gotten a negative test.”

Koplin said that receiving a nasal swab test the previous week had shown him that the tests were not as uncomfortable as popularly assumed.

“I’ve heard people talking about ‘deep in the nostril’ and so forth,” Koplin said. “It was minimally invasive. It actually tickled more than anything. And, about 15 minutes later, I’d forgotten that I’d taken it.”

Discussions with mayors of other towns show that Cordovans have been unusually compliant with public health mandates, Koplin said. Feedback from the city’s medical team and harbor staff also indicated that the public has been willing to follow public health mandates, he said.

Local health care providers have the capacity to perform 1,100 tests, according to data published May 18 by the city. Three hundred and fifty-five tests have been conducted, of which 319 have returned negative results and 35 are awaiting results, Koplin announced May 19.