Alaska could be reopening too soon

The COVID-19 global epidemic has decimated public health as well as economies. Deaths in the U.S. are projected at 100,000 deaths, according to The Centers for Disease Control. Cities in the U.S. are now in the phases of reopening, fearing that the economy will continue a downward trend, with unemployment at all-time highs.

The “Hunker Down Mandate,” for Anchorage closed businesses and services from March 22 to May 5. People were told to stay home as much as possible and only venture out for necessary tasks like grocery runs and emergency health visits due to the rise of COVID-19 cases state-wide. Alaska residents worked remotely when possible or lost employment altogether.

COVID-19 cases went down as a result and “The Curve,” seems to have been made less steep, because of social distancing, mask wearing and other mandates or strong suggestions to help contain the virus. Now that cases in Alaska are less, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Alaska public health officials have begun “Phase 2” of their four-phase plan to reopen services, businesses and loosen social distancing restrictions, called “Reopen Alaska Responsibly.”

Anchorage is in its second phase of the four-phase plan of reopening the city after loosening restrictions due to COVID-19. Photo by Christina Swayney.

The four-phase plan started “Phase 1” of relaxing restrictions on April 24. Most non-essential businesses opened with safeguard guidelines, such as operating at 25% capacity and the requirement for some businesses to have workers wear face masks. Restaurants, bars and some retailers opened up but bowling alleys, gyms, bingo parlors and schools remain closed. Guidelines such as disease activity, testing capacity, public health capacity and health care capacity are being used to decide when to proceed to the next stages.

“It’s going to fall on the individual to make sure we don’t cause a spike in the number of cases,” according to Alaska Public Media.

There is, however, concern in the U.S. of states and cities opening up too early. Dr. Anthony Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. He warned Americans about the riskiness of reopening too early at a COVID-19 panel in Washington D.C. on May 12. He addressed the importance of economic stability, but also the risks with loosening restrictions too early.

“Move too quickly and the consequences could be really serious. It not only would cause some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery,” said Fauci at the panel.

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“Phase 2” of “Reopen Alaska Responsibly” is in effect and started on May 8. Restaurants, retailers and other non-essential businesses are allowed to operate at 50% capacity. Bingo halls, gyms, theatres and other facilities considered as entertainment venues opened up as well. Restrictions and guidelines still apply, such as social distancing within venues, sign up sheets at bars for contact tracing and face coverings. While the four-point plan is being enacted to allow service to operate and Anchorage residents to go back to work and use these services, there are still questions as to the timing of this plan.

Dr. Lawrence Weiss is the founder of the Alaska Center for Public Policy and he developed and managed the Master of Public Health program, the first in Alaska. He is pleased that Gov. Dunleavy has laid out well-conceived plans for moving from “hunkering down” toward normalization but has specific concerns about the plan that have not been addressed. The plan is based on a downward trend of cases in Alaska as a way to determine to move forward from one phase to the next, in a time frame of two weeks. Dr.Weiss suggests that this time frame may be too short.

“In my view, it does not take into account real social considerations such as how long someone is circulating in the community infecting others before they finally decide to get tested and wait for the test results. In other words, there are social issues that this very short timeline seems to ignore. Consequently, the stages do not have enough time to be properly evaluated before moving onto the next one. The result could be an explosion of new cases that a more conservative timeline could have prevented,” Dr. Weiss said.

Four new cases of COVID-19 were reported on May 16, with one in Anchorage, one in Chugiak, one in Bethel, one in Homer and a Trident seafood worker in Dillingham from out of state, according to a KTUU article released on May 16. The total cases of COVID-19 as of May 16, are 392 reported cases.

For more information about the “Reopen Alaska Responsibly” plan, visit The State of Alaska site and read the full plan. For up to date information about COVID-19 in Alaska, visit the Alaska Coronavirus Response Hub. Information about COVID-19 and UAA can be found at the University of Alaska Coronavirus Information site.