Zaz Hollander

State moves ahead without emergency status

Alaska became one of two states in the United States without a formal COVID-19 public health disaster declaration on Feb. 14 and the only state without any disaster-related provisions, at least right now. The physically isolated and medically fragile state is also seeing a sharp reduction in coronavirus cases. But without the declaration, everything from hospital coronavirus treatment units to space for large vaccination clinics is in limbo, observers say. In place since March, it provided legal backing for state health orders, as well as flexibilities to respond to the virus and deliver vaccine to Alaskans. “Alaska is definitely in uncharted territory here,” said Emily Ford, government relations director with Providence Alaska Medical Center, the state’s largest hospital in Anchorage. Gov. Mike Dunleavy, in a news conference Feb. 14, the day the declaration expired, said it was time to start moving Alaska past restrictions. Alaska boasts one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. Declining daily case counts have been followed by dropping hospitalization and death statistics. The expiration led to the immediate closure of a popular drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at Lake Otis Parkway on Providence property operated in partnership with the municipality. The “alternate care site” was authorized by federal waivers granted by the declaration, hospital officials say. That site was dismantled Feb. 16, according to Providence spokesman Mikal Canfield. Starting Feb. 17, a new testing site will open at the municipal permit center, located at 4700 Elmore Road, according to an alert. All other testing sites are operating normally. The end of the declaration is also expected to change the way Providence and Alaska Regional Hospital care for COVID-19 patients because temporary building configurations required federal waivers that hinged on the emergency, hospital representatives say. At Providence, administrators wonder if Alaskans who need out-of-state care can still make use of telehealth visits with Outside providers. Another major change: the relaxation of travel policies that required incoming travelers either show a negative COVID-19 test result or quarantine for five days, policies credited with helping reduce the spread of the virus in a state with a vulnerable health-care system isolated from the Lower 48 by ocean on one side and Canada on the other. In place since June, mandatory airport testing had so far identified more than 2,350 positive COVID-19 cases, according to legislative testimony this month. Now officials lack the authority to mandate those restrictions, which become voluntary. At Alaska Airlines, messaging to the public will adopt the state’s new language, a spokesman said Feb. 15: the word “recommend” and “encourage” will replace “required” and it will be made clear that nonresidents can get airport testing for free instead of paying $250, as announced Sunday. State officials also said last week said the end of the emergency means losing a third of the state’s $23 million monthly food stamp aid from the federal government. Now people in various sectors are waiting to see what happens next. Some are celebrating. Steve Perrins, who owns Rainy Pass Lodge in the Alaska Range, said he was “very happy” to hear about the governor’s decision when a reporter told him about it Monday. Perrins hosted Dunleavy at the lodge last year when the governor accompanied a veteran on a hunting trip through the Wounded Warrior program. Perrins said both he and his wife, Denise, who are in their mid-60s, came down with COVID-19 last fall around Thanksgiving. His son, a medic in Anchorage, got the virus in October. None of them got severely ill. But, Perrins said, the virus has taken a toll in a different way. The lodge lost a $9,000 booking recently after Iditarod officials cancelled the race’s ceremonial start and other spectator favorites due to coronavirus concerns. Last year, a group of four booked a trip but one of them tested positive though he had no symptoms and was out $4,500 for the trip. “It’s really destroying our economy,” he said. Others are disappointed and frustrated that the disaster declaration was allowed to expire. “Everyone’s scrambling trying to figure out what is allowed, what is not allowed,” said Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. “It’s a mess. It’s a total mess.” The association lobbied hard for the declaration to continue starting in November, when Dunleavy signalled he might not sign the first of several 30-day extensions including the one that expired over the weekend. It’s possible the state will no longer have the authority to hold mass vaccine clinics at Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Kosin said Feb. 15. It’s also possible that out-of-state medical providers who received licensing flexibility to work here temporarily and boost limited staffing need to apply for an Alaska license to continue. “Is not having a declaration worth not having $8 million on a monthly basis? We’re in a fiscal crisis … I don’t understand,” Kosin said, referring to the projected loss of food stamp funding. “We’re obviously frustrated by this, that it didn’t get done. Now we’re trying to clean it up.” Dunleavy and his top health officials had urged the Legislature to use its authority to extend the declaration until September, saying the administration lacked the authority for a 30-day extension. A dysfunctional Alaska Legislature failed to renew the declaration. Some critics in the Legislature incorrectly linked the statewide emergency to locally imposed school closures and actions like the monthlong hunker down in Anchorage in December. The expiration of the state declaration does not change locally adopted coronavirus restrictions. Most House members asked the governor to issue a new declaration, and the Alaska Senate backed a resolution asking the governor to act. The governor’s decision to let the declaration expire makes Alaska the only state in the country without any kind of broad statewide public health emergency declaration. A declaration by Michigan’s governor was allowed to expire last year following a state supreme court decision but the state’s health department enacted a series of orders that mirrored those in the governor’s declaration. In Alaska, state officials on Feb. 14 released three new health advisories addressing travel and also the seafood industry, where requirements have been replaced with recommendations that “should” be followed on fishing vessels and in processing plants. At least one industry member — Trident Seafoods, the Seattle-based company with numerous plants and vessels operating in Alaska — said there would be no changes at any of their facilities. Trident’s Akutan plant experienced a serious COVID-19 outbreak last month and several company vessels also reported cases. Dunleavy issued a memo to state commissioners Sunday telling them to continue following policies in place under the declaration. It’s possible the Legislature could take action to make up for some aspects of the emergency declaration. By the end of day Feb. 16, the governor said, he wants commissioners to provide his administration a summary of how the declaration “affects your department so that we can prepare to address them in an orderly fashion and conduct a methodical return to normal state operations in a manner that prioritizes the health and safety of Alaskans.”

Travelers confused, uncertain about Alaska testing requirement

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s announcement May 29 that Alaska will require COVID-19 tests for incoming travelers set the phones ringing at the Denali Lakeview Inn in Healy. Not in a good way. At the 21-room hotel 10 miles from Denali National Park and Preserve, owners Daryl and Tara Frisbie estimate they’ve lost more than $700,000 so far this season as tourists sacrifice Alaska trips amid the uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic. Bookings were already down by 85 percent when the governor held his press conference on May 29, according to Daryl Frisbie. “The 15 percent left were kind of hanging on to see what the governor was going to say,” Frisbie said June 1. “That next morning, Tara was taking nothing but cancellations.” Dunleavy that day announced that travelers entering the state could avoid the existing quarantine if they get a COVID-19 test within 72 hours of a trip, starting June 5. Without one, they could submit to a rapid test at the airport upon arrival or, failing that, comply with a two-week quarantine on the books since March. No other states are asking for COVID-19 tests around travel. But confusion is high among potential travelers. There’s been no additional guidance on the specifics of the new mandate and how it dovetails with the existing 14-day quarantine mandate due to expire June 5, which is not being enforced but instead relies on voluntary cooperation. The governor said he’d hold a press conference June 1 to answer questions. The event was canceled. He said the state would publish an updated travel mandate June 2 making the new policy clear. As of June 2, the state had posted this on the COVID-19 mandate website: “Additional information about updates for the mandatory self-quarantine order for international and interstate travelers will be released later this week. Travelers should continue to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival to Alaska.” The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services tweeted a message about details coming this week late Monday: “Travelers, changes are afoot! Beginning June 5, proof of a negative result on a qualifying COVID-19 test obtained before arriving in AK allows visitors, workers &residents to enter without a 14-day quarantine.” Travelers weighing trips to the state this summer have far more questions than answers. So many questions. How do I get a COVID-19 test when doctors in my community are only referring people with symptoms? What’s the point of a 72-hour window when I can get exposed to more people on the flight than anywhere else I’ve been for months? How do I get test results back in such a short time? If I wait and get tested at the airport in Alaska, how long do I have to wait there? What happens if I test positive after I arrive? The test itself also has false-negative issues for people without symptoms. Physicians say someone can test negative right after they’re exposed to the virus, only to test positive a week later — or become exposed en route to the state. Sheri Woodbeck was supposed to fly to Alaska June 9 from her home near Minneapolis. She had a motor home rented and a three-day halibut charter booked. Her doctor told her she could get tested June 7. “But I wouldn’t get the results back until maybe Tuesday (June 9). By then I’m going to be on the plane,” Woodbeck said. “What happens if I did test positive? I would be in trouble.” She canceled her flight this week. Camille Hammond decided to cancel her family’s trip to Alaska from Oregon rather than deal with the testing requirement. Hammond called her doctor. She was told she couldn’t get tested without symptoms. She and her husband would be traveling with their three children, ages 7, 10 and 11. She didn’t want to submit them to invasive nasal swab testing at the Anchorage airport, if that’s what it came down to. She wondered why the state can’t require temperature screening or mask-wearing like other places do. “We were planning on camping and fishing, doing things that are outside,” Hammond said. “But the bottom line is right now in Oregon, we can’t get tested if we don’t have symptoms and it just seems foolhardy to wait till we get up there and cross our fingers it all works out seamlessly.” Blaze Baker, a civilian flight chief at Buell Air Force Base in Northern California, still hopes to visit family in Alaska. An annual event for two decades, the trip hinges on camping, fishing, berry picking and — this year — celebrating Baker’s 50th birthday. Baker originally planned two different trips, one in July and one in August. He’s still hoping to come but is waiting to see what the state decides. Maybe he’ll forgo the test and quarantine for a couple weeks, then head out. Baker said the idea of forcing a test on someone is “kind of creepy” and raises constitutional questions but also said he couldn’t get tested anywhere near his home community. “I’d be more comfortable if I knew everybody on the plane was tested, but it’s simply not available. I don’t know what to do. I’ll probably play it up to the last minute,” he said June 2. “It was a nice idea but practically I just don’t think it’s implementable.” Travel reductions in the face of the pandemic have crushed the state’s tourist industry. More than 1.4 million visitors — just less than twice the state’s total population — were expected to arrive here this summer, many on cruise ships that canceled most sailings. Most of the rest come on planes experiencing drastic passenger reductions. Health officials say Alaska benefited from its ability to curtail the flow of visitors from states with more virus cases through a ban on non-essential travel and the 14-day quarantine enacted in March. A number of physicians in the state urged the governor to ban travel as much as possible. There were just over 100 active cases here this week out of a total of 487. About 10 percent of the state’s total cases, 47 people, have gotten sick enough to require hospitalization. Ten Alaskans with the virus have died. In Juneau, where the loss of cruise ships has hammered the economy, the Juneau Assembly held a public hearing June 1 about enacting a local 14-day quarantine for people coming from Outside to Juneau. Martin Stepetin testified that 500 respondents to a Facebook poll supported the quarantine and 100 opposed it. Several others testified in support of testing if it allowed travelers to avoid a lengthy quarantine, including Dr. Steven Greer, who travels for work between Juneau and Oregon. Greer suggested a policy where travelers get tested before they fly to Alaska, and then again upon arrival, with a quarantine of about three days while they wait for the results from the second test. The assembly postponed a decision until a special meeting June 3. “We really need to hear the specifics of the governor’s plan,” said assembly member Maria Gladziszewski. Alaska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, and state Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum have agreed to participate in the meeting, officials say. The only other state with similar isolation and travel policies is Hawaii, where an enforced, 14-day quarantine remains in effect. Last month, Lt. Gov. Josh Green proposed a “Travel With Aloha” initiative: Anyone wanting to travel to Hawaii must first get a rapid turnaround test for COVID-19 or undergo a test upon arrival. A negative result could exempt them from the mandatory, 14-day travel quarantine. As of this week, the initiative remains a proposal only. There is no set date for Hawaii to revise its quarantine requirements. At the Denali Lakeview Inn on Monday, Tara Frisbie continued fielding phone calls from frustrated visitors canceling their trips north. She said a comment from a guest that day summed up her frustration: “It’s like your governor doesn’t want people to come visit your state.”

Princess and Holland America cancel 2020 Gulf of Alaska sailings

In another blow to Alaska’s struggling economy, Princess Cruises and Holland America Line are canceling Gulf of Alaska sailings for the entire season as the cruise industry grapples with the coronavirus pandemic. The Carnival-owned lines are the state’s biggest cruise ship operators. Both companies announced the cancellations Tuesday along with broader sailing delays fleetwide until July. About half the cruise voyages in Alaska this year have been canceled, including 175 involved in Tuesday’s announcement. Princess also announced that, given the already shortened summer season, the company isn’t opening five wilderness lodges it operates in Fairbanks, Cooper Landing, Denali National Park and Preserve, Denali State Park north of Talkeetna, and Copper Center. Princess will not operate bus or train excursions. Holland America has also canceled this season’s land excursions into Denali National Park and the Yukon. The company operates Westmark hotels in Fairbanks and Anchorage. Industry observers were expecting the biggest cruise season yet this year before the pandemic hit. The announcement “is devastating not just to the hundreds of businesses that rely on cruise passengers for their livelihoods, but the communities that receive a large portion of their revenue from visitor taxes and fees,” Alaska Travel Industry Association President and CEO Sarah Leonard said in a statement. Last year, Alaska’s visitor industry supported more than 52,000 jobs and created more than $4.5 billion in economic activity for Alaska, according to the association. Leonard said Tuesday’s announcement makes state and federal assistance for the state’s tourism businesses “all the more imperative.” More than a million out-of-state tourists come to Alaska on cruise ships every year — more than by any other form of transportation. Passengers on day excursions pour into jewelry stores, gift shops and restaurants around the state. They charter flightseeing trips and glacier cruises. From Seward and Whittier, they’re bused or take the train to Anchorage, where they stay in hotels, eat out and maybe travel farther north to Talkeetna, Denali and Fairbanks. Princess officials say they hope two vessels — Emerald Princess and Ruby Princess — will be able to sail later this summer round-trip to Southeast Alaska from Seattle. Holland America officials said the company hopes two vessels — Koningsdam and Eurodam — will be able to offer round-trip cruises from Seattle and Vancouver for part of the summer. “We will continue to assess these plans over the next several weeks,” Holland American spokesman Erik Elvejord said in an email Wednesday. No cruise ships will call at Whittier and a large part of Seward’s cruise traffic will be gone, industry officials say. There are now more than 601,000 fewer passengers cruising to Alaska this season, according to Cruise Lines International Association Alaska. That includes 126,000 canceled round-trips in Southeast Alaska, 246,000 others already canceled and Tuesday’s cancellations of 228,364 in Whittier and Seward. The state estimates each cruise passenger spends $624 in Alaska on average, according to the association. That’s an estimated $375 million that won’t be spent here this summer. The cancellations will also cause a direct loss of thousands of jobs, company officials said. “We deeply regret that we will not be able to employ the approximately 3,500 teammates who help show our guests the Great Land each summer,” Princess President Jan Swartz said in a YouTube video posted Tuesday. “Our thoughts are also with all of our small business partners throughout Alaska who we have supported every summer for decades,” Swartz said. “We know these decisions will have a large adverse economic impact on the state of Alaska which relies on tourism.” Princess announced cancellations of Alaska cruises of the following ships: Coral Princess; Emerald Princess; Golden Princess; Grand Princess; Pacific Princess’ Royal Princess; Ruby Princess; and Star Princess. Holland America canceled Alaska cruises on the following ships: Maasdam, Volendam, Oosterdam, Noordam and Westerdam. Nationally, the cruise industry shut down about a month ago amid the rising toll of the new coronavirus that causes the infectious disease known as COVID-19. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended a “no-sail order” for 100 days. The virus has sickened hundreds of cruise ship passengers and stranded thousands — including some Alaskans — as well as infecting and isolating crew members. Dozens on cruise ships have died. “Our outlook for a restart of travel continues to slip further into summer,” Princess spokeswoman Negin Kamali said in an email. “This, combined with the reality of our short Alaska operating season, has forced us to make the extremely difficult decision to cancel our 2020 Alaska gulf cruise and cruisetour programs.” Some communities, like Fairbanks, aren’t located on saltwater but still rely on the summer surge of cruise traffic. The cruise lines advertise sternwheeler tours and gold mines as well as flights to the Arctic Circle and Yukon River. The “cross-Gulf” cruises canceled this week generally start in Vancouver and end in Seward or Whittier, but passengers can book land tours to Denali National Park or Fairbanks. “It’s bad news,” said Deb Hickok, president and CEO of nonprofit visitor marketing organization Explore Fairbanks. The organization gets 86% of its budget from reinvested hotel and motel taxes taking a hit because of the virus, Hickok said. The organization laid off employees and cut its $4.2 million budget to $2.9 million — just below the level of the state’s 2009 recession. A 2016 study found land tours make up more than 40% of summer business in Fairbanks, Hickok said. “We know it’s over 150,000 visitors. What the exact portion of that is Holland and Princess I don’t know. But I can tell you the majority for sure.” Talkeetna, the quirky Susitna Valley town with Denali views, thrums with summer visitors as cruise passengers arrive by train and bus. Chris Byrd grew up in Talkeetna and now owns the Swiss Alaska Inn, a 21-room hotel and restaurant that opened in 1976. He’s getting numerous calls a day from cruise passengers canceling room reservations. Byrd voiced a hope shared by many in the tourism industry here: Once Alaskans can start leaving home again, they’ll be the first wave of visitors helping to rebuild the state’s tourist economy. But even that isn’t certain, Byrd said. “With the way the economy is going, oilfields shutting down, you don’t know what to expect,” he said. “Typically when tourism season isn’t great you’re hoping the oil fields are running and vice versa. Both of them being down at the same time is really not helpful for the state for sure.”  

Sturgeon prevails again at Supreme Court

An Alaska moose hunter whose case against the federal government made a rare second trip to the U.S. Supreme Court prevailed on March 26. The ruling marks a win for Alaskans unhappy with federal “overreach” on some public lands but doesn’t topple rural subsistence rights as some feared it might. John Sturgeon sued the National Park Service after rangers on the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in 2007 ordered him off the hovercraft he used for moose-hunting trips through the shallows of the Nation River near the Canadian border. The park service claimed the right to manage navigable waters inside parks and preserves. The state maintained that management of those waters was clearly left to the state, which allows hovercrafts. U.S. Supreme Court justices in this week’s decision ruled unanimously that the Nation River doesn’t qualify as “public land” for the purposes of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The sweeping 1980 law created 10 new national park units following natural boundaries rather than federally owned lands, adding more than 18 million acres of state, Native and private land. Nor does the park service have authority to regulate Sturgeon’s activities on the part of the river that falls within the preserve, according to a ruling authored by Justice Elena Kagan for the court. “That means Sturgeon can again rev up his hovercraft in search of moose,” Kagan wrote. Sturgeon, reached in Anchorage a few hours after the ruling, said he planned to do just that in September. “I’m really happy with the decision,” he said. Sturgeon cheered the restored access to once-secret hunting grounds on the Nation that he’d visited since 1971. But he also expressed gratitude that the Supreme Court ruling upheld the so-called Katie John decisions that underlie Alaska’s federal subsistence fishing rights. “Katie John was a casualty that I didn’t intend on,” Sturgeon said March 26. “I’m glad they said it doesn’t disturb Katie John.” He said he called Alaska Federation of Natives president and CEO Julie Kitka March 26 and they agreed it was a good outcome. Sturgeon said AFN and he, along with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, had worked unsuccessfully on a compromise solution that would have left Katie John intact but “this was just as good.” “Alaska is different by law,” he said. “Alaska is different, our parks and preserves and refuges are not managed like they do down south. I think that’s pretty important.” A park service spokesman said the agency is reviewing the Supreme Court decision to “determine what changes will be necessary to bring existing policy in line with today’s ruling.” Ruth Botstein, the assistant district attorney who successfully argued the case last year on the state’s behalf, was one of numerous at-will employees dismissed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy last fall when he came into office. The ruling is the second time the court had heard the case — and generally ruled in Sturgeon’s favor. Justices in 2016 ordered the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to take another look at the case, particularly the provisions about ANILCA exceptions. The unanimous decision of all eight justices declared the 9th Circuit had taken a “topsy-turvy” approach to the law when it said a National Park Service rule banning hovercraft in the Lower 48 must be applied to Alaska. It ordered the lower court to reconsider the issue in light of ANILCA, which created an “Alaska exception” to many of the normal rules applied to national parks, wilderness areas, refuges and other preserves. Over time, the case grew more complicated since that first visit to the Supreme Court. The lawsuit grew into a potential test of the legal precedents, named for the late Ahtna elder and litigant Katie John, which for two decades have provided the legal underpinning of federal subsistence fishing rights in Alaska. Federal rules give priority to rural subsistence families in times of shortage. The Supreme Court decision this week does not undermine the Katie John precedents, said Heather Kendall-Miller, an Anchorage-based attorney with the Native American Rights Fund who drew up a brief in the case for the Alaska Federation of Natives. “The Katie John cases remain the law of the land,” Kendall-Miller said. Just one footnote about halfway through the 46-page ruling makes the ruling’s precision clear: the Katie John provisions are “not at issue in this case, and we therefore do not disturb the Ninth Circuit’s holdings that the Park Service may regulate subsistence fishing on navigable waters.” AFN released a statement March 26 congratulating Sturgeon on the ruling and saying the decision was also a victory for subsistence users. “This is good news for the Alaska Native community and for rural Alaskan subsistence users,” Kitka said in the statement. “Our Board previously approved two principles related to the case: private landowner’s access to — and use of — inholdings within conservation system units; and no net loss to subsistence rights. This ruling accomplishes both.” Alaska’s congressional delegation in 2015 submitted an amicus brief in support of Sturgeon. The delegation welcomed the Supreme Court decision as upholding “promises made to Alaskans in ANILCA” that the park service doesn’t have expansive rights over state and native lands. “During its inception, Senator Ted Stevens and I worked hard to make ANILCA fair to sportsmen, Native communities, and energy developers,” Rep. Don Young wrote in a statement. “Our legislation was intentionally written so that the Alaskan people wouldn’t need to ask the Federal government for permission to use the lands they had been stewards of for generations.” Young and Murkowski also praised the ruling for not disturbing the Katie John decision. Members of the state senate majority cheered the decision that the Nation River is state rather than federal land and navigable inside Alaska national parks. Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, also referenced the Taku and Stikine rivers in Southeast as “clearly navigable waters and the domain of the state, not the federal government.” The Supreme Court decision includes a concurring opinion from justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg recognizing the ruling raises uncertainty about the park service’s authority over navigable waters in Alaska’s parks. “Many of Alaska’s navigable rivers course directly through the heart of protected parks, monuments, and preserves. A decision that leaves the Service with no authority, or only highly constrained authority, over those rivers would undercut Congress’ clear expectations in enacting ANILCA and could have exceedingly damaging consequences,” Sotormayor wrote in the opinion. Congress, through ANILCA, intended for the park service to protect and regulate Alaska rivers. If so, she continued, it’s up to Congress to “clarify the broad scope of the Service’s authority over Alaska’s navigable waters.” The National Parks Conservation Association, involved in the case as a “friend of the court” supporting the park service, called the ruling disappointing but said the concurring opinion “makes it clear that the park service still has the authority to protect park lands from resource damage.” “Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve was created in part to protect the rivers and lakes that run through this wilderness,” the group’s Alaska regional director Jim Adams said in a statement. “Eliminating the hovercraft rule in Alaska is a loss for the ‘wild’ that makes these places special to people.” Sturgeon said the ruling probably doesn’t mean hunters in hovercraft will descend on the Nation, which is so sprawling and shallow that it’s hard to travel without extra support. He put his own now-famous hovercraft into his two-car garage and rebuilt it from scratch with new engine he tested just last Saturday. “I started it up and broke the engine in,” he said. “I did it all myself and was very surprised when it actually ran.”
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