Anchorage might not begin relaxing its emergency orders until May. And in the meantime, it may task municipal workers with assisting their state counterparts processing the deluge of unemployment and small business claims pouring in as a way to get relief to residents more quickly.
The information was shared at a press briefing Friday, where Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz was joined by two business leaders to provide advice to Alaskans trying to weather coronavirus closures.
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The municipality is taking some steps to help struggling residents, including postponing tax collection and reducing costs for some building permits. But most direct aid is structured to reach people through banks and social safety net programs, systems that are currently overwhelmed, facing massive backlogs. To help expedite the process, Berkowitz said there are plans being developed to train municipal workers to assist state employees currently handling the flood of new unemployment claims.
“What’s happened practically is there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of unanswered phone calls and emails that the state has been unable to respond to,” Berkowitz said. “So what the municipality hopes to do is at least help the state respond to individuals.”
Details like how many city employees might be involved, and which departments they might come from, are not yet clear, Berkowitz said.
He and others at the press conference encouraged businesses to apply for federal relief funds. And they reminded individuals to file their annual federal taxes, both to get money into people’s pockets via potential refunds, and because it may speed up individual assistance from stimulus payments.
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But the economic hardship is going to continue.
“We’re in for some tough times, no way to sugar-coat that,” said Jon Bittner, executive director of the Alaska Small Business Development Center.
The likely avenues for financial support, Bittner added, will come from the local community support and potential federal dollars eventually arriving in bank accounts.
Even though Alaska’s number of COVID-19 cases has remained comparatively low, officials caution that is not an indication it is safe for business to return to normal.
“We’re looking at early May for when the bulk of the orders will (change),” Berkowitz said. “But they will not end at that point, I would think we’d just start to modify them as we adjust to the data we receive.”
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He stressed that medical advice and public health policy recommendations will guide decisions on how to ease out of the current emergency orders.
And even though hospitals have not yet been overwhelmed by sick patients, there is a risk on the horizon of first responders and medical facilities not having enough personal protective equipment. According to Berkowitz, the state is waiting on some big orders, and in the meantime local officials have gotten creative.
“We’ve reached out to our sister city in China, Harbin, and we’re hoping to source material from them. I got a great report last night that they are just going to send us some masks and some equipment. Still hoping to see that get here,” he said.
The city has convened an “economic resiliency task force,” which includes a compilation of resources for businesses, non-profits, and employees looking for help.