With coronavirus panic pinching Alaska on all sides, Dunleavy says ‘it’s a momentary glitch’

Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks to a town hall in Chugiak on March 2, 2020. (Photo by the Governor's office/Flickr)

As of this morning, Alaska is still officially free of any cases of coronavirus but that doesn’t mean it isn’t already feeling the impacts.

Coronavirus-induced market panics have erased billions of dollars in value from the Alaska Permanent Fund, oil has plummeted amid a emerging price war between Russia and the Saudis, and the summer tourism industry could be slammed with cancellations, putting the pinch on nearly every corner of Alaska.

A year after proposing deep cuts to government services, including health care, Gov. Mike Dunleavy struck an optimistic message about Alaska’s financial outlook at a news conference this morning, calling the precipitous falloffs in the stock market and oil prices a “momentary glitch.”

“First of all, it’s not the end of the world. I see these things as a momentary glitch,” he said. “I see this virus as a momentary glitch, I see the drop in oil prices as a momentary issue. Alaska’s oil industry and conventional fields mean we are in for the long haul. … We still anticipate that we’ll see an increase in 200,000 to 300,000 barrels of oil come online. The investment horizon in Alaska is much longer. … We don’t know how long this price war will last.”

Dunleavy said he expects things will return to normal, possibly in a matter of months. He said Alaska is positioned for the long-term and said today’s panic wouldn’t be prompting immediate change in course as the Legislature develops the budget for the upcoming year.

The governor also praised the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation for its expertise in managing the fund. The fund lost about $1.6 billion during the month of February, or about 2.5 percent of the total fund’s value. Fund managers the passive benchmark of traditional funds, which is used to judge performance of the fund, lost about 5.5 percent during that time.

“I see it as a momentary glitch, something certainly to watch, but nothing there to panic about at this point. We will be in conversations with the Legislature, like we have been,” he said. “We have to have a continued conversation as to how big our government is going forward, but I would say this is definitely a momentary bump in the road for Alaska.”

Dunleavy didn’t directly address the potential impact on tourism, one of Alaska’s largest sectors that has been growing in recent years. Cruise ships account for a large number of visitors and the Center for Disease Control warned on Sunday against traveling on them, saying “U.S. citizens, particularly travelers with underlying health conditions, should not travel by cruise ship.”

The City and Borough of Juneau’s Assembly, which hosts several cruise ships during the summer, is hosting a special update on COVID-19 tonight at 6 p.m. The announcement encourages people to practice social distancing and listen to the meeting on the radio or online. The meeting will also be broadcast on the city’s Facebook page.

Legislators in the Dunleavy-friendly minority House Republican caucus were quick to express frustration with the administration in a prepared statement, calling for more information and transparency with the administration.

Rep. Mel Gillis, an Anchorage Republican with a background in guiding, said Alaska needs to be prepared both for the virus and the potential economic fallout.

“Obviously with tourist season upcoming, it’s important that we are prepared to handle whatever influx of people, or lack thereof, we see this year,” he said. “Many Alaskans are heavily dependent on tourism, and it is critically important that we do whatever we can to put to rest any fears that might prevent people from coming to Alaska. We must be prepared to deliver a safe, healthy, and enjoyable environment for everyone who visits our state this year. I am looking forward to receiving more information from the Dunleavy Administration of precautions being taken to protect Alaska’s economy.”

On the virus

State health officials announced that 23 people have been tested for coronavirus so far and none of the tests have come back positive. There are nine additional pending tests. Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink told reporters at this morning’s briefing that the state has been ramping up its testing capacity, which currently sits at about 500 people.

She said the state has worked to relax its restrictions on who and when tests can be conducted, but said that it will still be focused on people who show the specific symptoms: respiratory issues like coughing and shortness of breath as well as fever and chills.

As for notifying the public, Zink said the state would try to issue an alert within an hour of a positive result. Just how much information, though, is released to the public will depend on the specifics of the case.

“Say this was someone who just flew here, had no community exposure, went right to the ER, got tested — we wouldn’t announce that to that community because we wouldn’t see there’s a community risk,” Zink said.

The officials also acknowledged that they’ve been in talks with the military about forced quarantines, which state law allows the governor to enact during emergencies. Those provisions also allow the state to commandeer private property except for all news media.

“It’s really important that we respect individual freedom, but we’re also protecting the health,” Zink said. “It’d be very different depending on if it’s one person or a community of people. Is it a rural area, an urban area?”

Following the morning news conference, the governor suspended three town halls planned for this week in Kenai, Seward and Homer “so that I can remain closely connected to federal and local partners while monitoring the rapid-evolving information in regard to the novel coronavirus.”

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