Welcome to the latest edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column attempting to catch up with and make sense of the week that was in Alaska political news.
It’s been… well, a week and as I write this introduction with the brilliantly good weather outside, I’m having trouble thinking of anything particularly witty to fill this out. So, ah,
As always, you can get ahold of me with tips, suggestions, corrections and whatever else at [email protected].
Oh, and we’ve had a really good response so far to the latest round of the 2020 legislator rankings but want to keep it open for another week so if you haven’t already filled it out—or want your opportunity to pack the ballot box one last time—go and check it out now.
The uncertainty of uncertainty
On Thursday, Alaska reported its highest daily case count of COVID-19 in several weeks with 13 new cases reported from residents of seven communities. It’s a not-so-surprising spike as the state begins to reopen after it bounced along the bottom with zero to a handful of cases over the past few weeks. Five additional cases were announced today.
Just what’s driving the spike is unclear but Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink said they don’t appear to be from a single cluster group infection, which means it’s likely several separate instances of infections as the state reopens.
Much of this was expected, but it’s certainly not thrilling news following a weekend where the state reopened fully just in time for Memorial Day. Given the lag time in showing symptoms these infections are likely from before the weekend. I don’t know about you, but I sure didn’t see a heckuva lot of masks or social distancing over the weekend.
The uneven following of measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 is particularly frustrating, a product of national partisan politics and the state’s own “It’s a free country” suggestion-driven approach to public health mandates.
Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, summed it all up very well during Wednesday’s legislative hearing on workplace safety in reopening.
“I’ve first-hand witnessed a false sense of security with the easing of various health mandates,” said Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, the Bethel Democrat who chairs the House Health and Social Services Committee. “There’s a sense that somehow we eradicated COVID’s presence in Alaska enough to ease these health mandates but we also understand that the easing of these health mandates does not make the virus less contagious or the serious cases any less serious.”
The reality of the situation is we really don’t know what the precisely right course of action is. It’s possible that the health care precautions we’ve taken are overkill and it’s possible that they’re nowhere near enough to slow the spread of the virus as we reopen. The anecdotal evidence of super spreader incidents would suggest the latter, especially as the state reopens indoors spaces to full capacity.
At the Wednesday hearing, researcher Dr. Erin Bromage, who authored a popular article about the risks of COVID-19, testified about such super-spreader events where airflow patterns was the deciding factor in who got sick at a restaurant or office space.
Thursday’s new cases may have been a blip or it may have been a sign of things to come as Alaska continues to reopen, but what’s certain is that almost everything about COVID-19 is uncertain and our path forward will likely be determined by just how much risk individuals, businesses and the state and local governments are willing to take.
Just as the state was announcing its highest COVID-19 cases in several weeks, Gov. Mike Dunleavy was hanging out on far-right gun fondler Dana Loesch’s radio show touting how great Alaska has been doing with reopening. While we’ve all been feeling the cabin fever of self-isolation and looking forward to getting back to camping, hiking and drinking beers, I guess Dunleavy has been missing his appearances on friendly right-wing national media.
Though the governor has treated the media to rambling near-daily briefings, he’s rarely sat down with media for a true interview. And Alaska Public Media reporter Nat Herz (and several others in the responses) has had enough.
Updated: Easing the travel restrictions
Also talking about uncertainty and a bizarre media plan, Gov. Mike Dunleavy has announced he’ll be revising the 14-day quarantine for people arriving in Alaska (which has largely been on the honor system anyways) with details coming Monday… and Tuesday… and the expiration of the 14-day quarantine that was set for early next week has been extended to Friday, which is when the revised plan that will be fully explained by the end of next Tuesday will presumably probably go into effect.
The details of the plan are as follows: It’ll require people to take a test sometime within the 72 hours immediately prior to getting on a plane to Alaska. A negative result and you’re good to go and romp around Alaska. A
negative positive test and you’ll be asked to STAY OUT. And if you somehow get to Alaska without taking a test, then you’ll be tested at the airport and be asked to quarantine for some amount of time.
Given the lag in becoming symptomatic/having enough of the virus in your nose to show up positive on a test, it all kinda has the feeling of security theater. What’s left us wondering is just what kind of interests are pushing the governor in this direction especially when it could pose a serious risk both to public health and his own political capital if things get worse. The smart money would be on folks tied to tourism and sport fishing.
Campaign season is upon us
The end of the legislative session brought with it the start of the campaign season, lifting the ban on legislators fundraising or campaigning while the Legislature is in session.
The big unknown when it comes to the races this year is the outlook for several moderate, generally business-friendly Republicans who’ve spent the last year working with Democrats to cobble together a mostly functioning Legislature and in doing so stepped out of line with the hardline partisans.
The six Republicans in the House Majority coalition as well as several senators—particularly Sens. Cathy Giessel and Natasha von Imhof (odd how Republican women seem to get the brunt of the pushback)—are prime primary targets this year and several have already seen challengers.
There’s going to be a lot of factors that play into whether those primaries are successful with one of the biggest being the looming likelihood of a fall special session over the PFD. We talked about such a possibility earlier this week but such a move would push the issue back to the forefront in voters’ minds (and that’s not to mention the whole issue of the vetoes, either) just as they’re heading to the polls.
And behind the scenes we’ve heard several of these Republicans reaching back out to the party and other powerbrokers to mend relationships ahead of the race. Especially this last budget, we saw several times where this group of moderate Republicans voted, well, like Republicans.
That said, there’s an opportunity here for Democrats and independent to make pushes for these seats if Republicans start eating themselves and end up nominating a far-right candidate who could struggle in a more moderate general election. Though we’ve never really seen this play out with a lot of success, there’s been some Democratic filers who look a heckuva lot like placeholders in case such an opportunity arises.
RIP Bob Lynn
Alaska’s political world lost another member this week with the passing of former Anchorage Republican Rep. Bob Lynn. Lynn joined the Legislature in 2003 and served until 2016.
As a Fairbanks-focused reporter while Lynn was in office, I had few opportunities to interact with Bob but I’ll always remember him for tenderly walking his wife Marlene to her regular hair appointments at a salon near where I lived. Marlene passed in 2016. Lynn is survived by his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Uncertainty for UA
The University of Alaska’s Board of Regents is set to take up several measures that would radically change higher education in Alaska. The big-ticket item being whether to fold the Juneau-based University of Alaska Southeast into UAA or UAF as part of an effort to close what could be a $33 million budget hole in the 2021-2022 budget.
Like everyone else, UA is facing incredible uncertainty right now when it comes to just about everything, including the future of the state’s budget. Just as the university was hoping that it was out of the woods on budget cuts thanks to the compact they signed with Dunleavy, UA President Jim Johnsen said in a meeting with reporters on Thursday that given the state of the state’s finances those guarantees might be out the window.
‘You matter to us.’
That’s the message from a community update sent out by Anchorage Police Department Chief Justin Doll this afternoon responding to the “simply unfathomable conduct by a police officer” that led to the death of George Floyd. It’s a meaningful and worthwhile read that offers a frank assessment of police conduct, particularly with people of color.
“There are very real and complicated issues in the relationship between many police departments and their communities. The unrest that many cities are experiencing stems from a lack of trust in their police force, as a result of current and historical injustices that have occurred in those communities. Trust is not something that can be established overnight, it must be earned,” he wrote.
Read the whole update here.
An “I Can’t Breathe” rally is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday in Anchorage at the REI parking hosted by Native Movement and Native Peoples Action.
“Enough is enough,” the group said in an announcement. “We are done dying. We ask leadership from institutions everywhere to commit to stopping this violence. We seek actionable item response from law enforcement. As Black and Indigenous communities we are asking all people to stand together in solidarity and in care.”
Take care everyone.