Echoing President Donald Trump’s desire to get the economy restarted sooner than later, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced a loose plan on Monday night to reopen certain unspecified sectors of the Alaska economy with a wait-and-see approach to see if people get sick.
Following the implementation of shelter-in-place orders limiting travel and business activity, the state has not experienced an exponential growth in confirmed cases of COVID-19 that has marked the hardest hit areas of the country. It’s been enough evidence for Dunleavy to begin with plans to reopen the Alaska economy in pieces in the coming weeks.
But without the widespread testing or effective vaccination that many health experts have said are critical to combating the pandemic, the governor said his plans to reopening certain sectors will largely rely on waiting to see if people will get sick or not.
If a significant number of people don’t get sick within a few days (COVID-19 can take weeks to appear), he said, then the state would push ahead with further openings. If people do get sick, he said the state may reconsider the plans.
“In essence, what we’ll end up doing over time is let’s say we open up one sector, we watch the number for a few days and if the numbers don’t spike and we keep an eye on things and make sure all the protocols and mandates in place are still followed then we’ll know what we’re doing is working,” he said.
“And we may enter a new week, open up another sector or two of the economy and watch those numbers again. and if they don’t fluctuate or spike then we’ll know that what we’re doing—all the testing, all the protocols, etcetera—that we’re on the right track. If, for some reason, we reopen the sector of the economy and those numbers spike and we go back and we trace where those numbers came from, who was in contact with those people, we may end up throttling back on that sector of that economy or maybe throttle back in that area.”
The move reflects growing frustration with the economic impacts of the shutdown that has brought many businesses to a standstill and left tens of thousands of Alaskans without steady work. But with few specifics (he said he’ll offer more in the coming days) and even less certainty about the state of testing in Alaska, the governor’s push is a confusing gamble—at best.
Other states have laid out plans for easing shelter-in-place orders, setting clear expectations for what measures need to be met first. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state would need vastly expanded testing, increased protections for high-risk populations and greatly improved health care facility capacity before easing measures.
Though Dunleavy said science and public health would guide his decision making, he offered no similar guidelines for reopening Alaska. He said the decisions on what sectors would be reopened would largely rely on the daily count of new cases, noting that there are several communities that haven’t registered a case that could be reopened soon.
It’s unclear if Alaska’s relatively slow increase in cases is due to effective social distancing measures or a lack in testing. The early weeks of the state’s response saw several reports suggesting it was incredibly difficult for people, including those with symptoms, to get tested as providers sought to focus the limited number of testing supplies to cases with recent travel.
It’s only relatively recently that the state has expanded its parameters for who can be tested. Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink said on Monday that tests now can go to anyone who’s displaying COVID-19 symptoms—which she acknowledged are broad and vague—and asymptomatic people in high-risk environments like nursing homes.
Alaska has 285 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of today, with a total of 8,348 tests completed between commercial labs (6,195) and the state labs (2,153). A total of nine deaths have been reported, including the most recent death of a Wasilla woman in her 30s.
Zink on Monday acknowledged the difficulty in tracking and understanding COVID-19, noting that the long-term goal is to be able to test all 730,000 Alaskans several times.
“I think in general this disease is so hard to diagnose clinically. One, because clinicians haven’t seen it. Two, because it presents with such a broad range of symptoms. Three, we just don’t know that much about the disease yet. That the test is really the most useful tool that we have right now,” she said. “I think that we’re going to need enough tests to be able to test all Alaskans multiple times for numerous reasons. That’s what we’re shooting for for testing capacity. At this time, we want to make sure we’re testing anyone who’s symptomatic at this time.”
Why it matters
Testing has been and continues to be the most critical tool to understand and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Without it, Alaskans and these unspecified sectors of the Alaska economy could be stepping into the unknown as they return to business but even testing has its limitations because of the lag between exposure and sickness can be weeks; testing only provides a weeks-old snapshot of how communities are dealing with COVID-19.
It’s a time frame that’s not compatible with Dunleavy’s plan to monitor things “for a few days” before knowing if something’s working or not. Given the aggressiveness of COVID-19 infections, it could only take a one infection to cause a widespread resurgence in cases.
The motivation to get things back to normal is understandable, particularly as the economic pain created by the government’s health mandates continues to grow and worsen, but a hasty return based on an incomplete picture of the virus could make things far worse. The necessary timeline to hunker down and limit activity was always likely to be months even though officials offered conservative estimates when first making them.
Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz,who was the first to issue a hunker-down order in Alaska and will be seeking to extend the order tonight, acknowledged the frustration during a separate update on Monday. He warned that moving too quickly could mean the sacrifices already made could go to waste.
“When we turn this back on, we’re going to turn slowly. Testing is critical. We need to watch what the data is and adjust our responses accordingly because that’s the prudent thing to do,” he said. “We shouldn’t have come this far with this great sacrifice without finishing what we set out to achieve: A safer place for everybody.”
Easing state restrictions might not have a significant impact on places like Anchorage or Juneau, which could maintain and extend their orders, but they could be dire for communities that have relied on the state’s orders to slow the spread of the virus. The law allows local communities to be more restrictive with local measures than the state, but several communities—particularly those in rural Alaska—don’t have the power to implement or enforce shelter-in-place orders or travel restrictions.
Some communities home to large sectors of Alaska’s economy have called for a far more conservative approach to COVID-19. Last week, communities in the Bristol Bay region made a remarkable request to Dunleavy to put a halt to the area’s fishing season, a $300 million industry, suggesting they may take action into their own hands if Dunleavy refuses to act.
For now, the Dunleavy administration has allowed that sector to continue.