Alaska’s starting to reopen but officials warn ‘we are a long way’ from normal

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz released a roadmap on Monday for easing public health restrictions and reopening businesses in a multi-staged approach that relies on widespread testing, downward trending cases and increased health care capacity.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced plans to release a statewide roadmap this week, looking to ease the restrictions that closed most retail stores, restaurants, barber shops and nail salons. Those businesses would be able to reopen with heavily modified operations as early as next week.

The message from both was clear: That Alaska’s slowing infection rate is a hard-won, but fragile victory and that reopening will be a slow and careful process that ensures the sacrifices made to date are not lost in a resurgence of COVID-19.

“A rampant pandemic is bad for business and people need to recognize that,” said Berkowitz, who said he’s been working closely with the state to formulate their plans for reopening. “What we’re attempting to do here is manage the public health component of the COVID-19 pandemic at the same time we’re trying to get the economy more stabilized and ease out of the restrictions that are in place. If we do that in an intelligent way, if we do that in a disciplined way, we can come back strong. If we come back too fast or too soon or too much, then we risk all the sacrifices we’ve made.”

Berkowitz said previous pandemics have important lessons about second or third waves of a pandemic hitting after people thought things were safe. He and several public health officials who joined him during Monday’s news conference warned that it returning to normal will require a widespread and effective vaccine, something that’s not expected to be available until sometime in 2021.

Alaska currently has 329 confirmed cases statewide with nearly half being reported in Anchorage residents. Nine have died statewide.

Anchorage Health Department Medical Officer Dr. Bruce Chandler thanked health care workers and residents who’ve stayed home but warned that things will be precarious—and potentially deadly—until a vaccine is developed.

“I think it’s very clear this is not going to be a short-term event. While we all dream of quick resolution and getting our lives back to normal, the threat of this virus will continue,” he said. “Likely until we have an effective and widely available vaccine, hopefully by next year. While we’ve had 155 confirmed cases in Anchorage that means there are still over 290,000 people in Anchorage who are not immune and who will remain susceptible to the virus. If everyone were to become infected, we could expect at least 6,000 people in Anchorage would die.”

While the Dunleavy administration plans to release additional details of a statewide reopening over the next few days, the Anchorage roadmap lays out specific allowable activities, continued protective measures and risk metrics that need to be met—like 14 days of downward trending cases and hospitalization—before moving onto the next stage. It goes from “hunker down” to “easing” to “recovery” to “maintenance” to “new normal.”

The one thing missing, though, from the Anchorage roadmap is any specific timeline.

Berkowitz acknowledged that the plan isn’t following hard-and-fast numbers but is intended to be flexible, likening it to a dimmer switch that will respond to case rates.

“We need to change this question from when to what,” he said. “What do we need to achieve before we can be more open? You can’t get too complacent or too cocky. This disease lurks. … We have to manage for that contingency.”

He said it will take a very long time before all measures can be eased.

“We get to a point where there’s a vaccine and can say with some certainty that most of the community is safe,” he said. “We are a long way away from that.”

Why it matters

While political and economic interests have pushed for a speedy reopening of the businesses, the details of the Anchorage roadmap is an effort to manage expectations about what’s in store for businesses—giving examples of restaurants operating with sharply reduced seating and salons working on an appointment-only one-on-one setting. Social distancing, facemasks and regular cleanings would still be a part of the plan through many of the stages.

It’s a long way from Gov. Dunleavy’s initial response, when he suggested that COVID-19 and the economic fallout would be a “momentary glitch.”

It’s crystal clear that nothing about the COVID-19 pandemic will be momentary and that the public health pressures and the economic fallout will last for years. The reopening of businesses in the next weeks will be limited and require significant changes for businesses and that’s even getting into the issues about the public’s confidence in these measures.

Reopening businesses is only part of the equation to return to normal. Alaskans must feel confident and be safe when returning to work or to spend their money in the community. Public officials have a critical role in this process of not just ensuring that the public health needs are met but that expectations are managed in a clear and transparent manner.

We’re still seeing the impacts of the early efforts to downplay the seriousness of the problem at hand.

Spend a minute in the comment sections of these news conferences and you’ll see a great amount of confusion and division about the COVID-19 pandemic with the worst tendencies fueled by far-right figures who’re still clinging to the notion that this is an overblown hoax.

At the end of the day, without an effective and widely available vaccine Alaska will still be at great risk of a surge in COVID-19.

The reality is that normal—for whatever normal is anymore—is still many, many months away.

Anchorage roadmap

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