Anchorage mayor joins calls for travel restrictions as questions of authority linger

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz speaks at a community briefing at Alaska Public Media last week.

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz has joined doctors and community leaders across the state calling for a ban on non-essential air travel in Alaska amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“The idea of closing down air travel or asking people to hunker down, these are medical prescriptions,” Berkowitz said in an interview Monday. “And I think we ought to follow them, the same way we follow a doctor’s advice when we get sick in the normal course of our lives.”

Berkowitz said he’s waiting to hear from city attorneys about whether he has the authority to adopt such restrictions himself, when it comes to the state-run Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

Dozens of doctors have called on Gov. Mike Dunleavy to block all non-essential travel into and within the state. Berkowitz said an overarching statewide policy would be better than each municipality adopting their own, as has started to happen in rural Alaska villages.

Read more: Dunleavy administration ‘strongly advises’ against non-essential air travel as pressure builds

“Even from the airlines’ perspective, it’s incredibly problematic to have jurisdictions all across Alaska coming up with their own individual responses to this problem, instead of having a uniform state response — or even more importantly, a uniform federal response,” Berkowitz said.

Nonetheless, he made clear that he wasn’t second-guessing Dunleavy’s intentions.

“We’re working hard to make sure that even where we might disagree, the public understands that we have a shared goal of making sure that we are all safe,” Berkowitz said. “And that is something that the governor and I agree on.”

Read more coronavirus coverage from Alaska Public Media

A Dunleavy spokesman, Dave Stieren, said travel restrictions are still under consideration as the state’s efforts to fight the spread of the coronavirus evolve daily. Dunleavy has scheduled a news conference for 6 p.m. Monday to announce “additional measures against COVID-19,” the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Dunleavy’s administration has already issued a strong recommendation against non-essential travel. But Stieren also said it’s not clear that the governor has the authority to turn the recommendation into a requirement. In a prepared statement Friday, the Alaska Department of Transportation said that the Federal Aviation Administration was not ready to approve airport closures.

An FAA spokesman, Allen Kenitzer, did not directly answer a question about whether local officials in Alaska have the authority to close airports themselves.

“All I can say at this time is that we are still reviewing requests from the state of Alaska to close and restrict access to airports in their state because of COVID-19,” Kenitzer wrote in an email Monday.

Nathaniel Herz is an Anchorage-based journalist. He's been a reporter in Alaska for a decade, and is currently reporting for Alaska Public Media. Find more of his work by subscribing to his newsletter, Northern Journal, at Reach him at

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