Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration has required hundreds of essential businesses to draft formal plans detailing how they’ll keep operating during the COVID-19 pandemic without jeopardizing public health.
So far, though, the state is refusing to release those plans publicly, even as municipal leaders press for access to them to aid their development of local restrictions and ensure companies are complying with state health mandates.
The Dunleavy administration has also denied a formal public records request filed by CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations.
The administration intends to release the documents after reviewing them for information exempt from the state public records act that needs to be redacted, Angela Hull, Dunleavy’s public records specialist, said in an email last week. But with more than 700 plans submitted, the state is focused on reviewing the documents and deciding whether to approve or deny them, she added. She did not provide a time frame for when the plans would be released.
Officials at the Department of Health and Social Services declined to be interviewed or answer specific questions about how the plans were being vetted, saying they couldn’t talk about them until the state finished its response to CoastAlaska’s public records request.
“If you have filed a public records request we need to let that process work its way through the system,” Clinton Bennett, a department spokesman, wrote in an email.
Asked about the plans at a news conference last week, Commissioner Adam Crum said the administration assembled a team to review whether companies’ proposals meet the intent of Dunleavy’s order.
In at least one case, the state rejected changes to a proposed plan: BP, the major oil producer, initially wanted to fly out-of-state workers directly to the North Slope after they self-quarantined outside the state. But Dunleavy’s administration rejected that idea, forcing the company to quarantine its out-of-state employees at an Anchorage hotel for two weeks before they could fly to Prudhoe Bay.
“There has been feedback, particularly on the North Slope,” Crum said. “We had a lot of contact, along with contractors that work up there, the health care providers up there, working on their plans, talking about their quarantine procedures.”
Dunleavy last month issued an order requiring anyone arriving in Alaska to self-quarantine and work from home for two weeks, in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. He also ordered the closure of all businesses except those in “critical infrastructure” industries, or those that provide “essential services.”
Essential workers are still required to observe the two-week quarantine order. But they can be exempted from the requirement to work from home if their employer submits a plan to Dunleavy’s administration detailing protective measures that will avoid spreading COVID-19 and jeopardizing the lives of people in the communities where they operate. Those include plans for screening workers for COVID-19 infection, along with steps taken to limit quarantined workers’ contacts with colleagues and the general public.
The state says that violators of Dunleavy’s quarantine order can be fined up to $25,000 and imprisoned for up to a year.
But as of March 31, no “enforcement mechanism” had been identified, Tom Koloski, a top state emergency response official, wrote in an email to a Bristol Bay Borough official. Troopers and local police lack the manpower to “ensure wide-spread enforcement,” Koloski added.
The state is currently focused on education and “providing businesses with guidelines and tools so they can comply with the mandates,” Jeremy Zidek, a state emergency response spokesman, wrote in an email.
“We are working with several industries to develop industry specific guidance,” Zidek said. “Overall, Alaskan businesses have shown a great willingness to comply with the mandates.”
Initially, businesses eligible for exemptions included those in health care, natural resource extraction, banking, grocery stores and maintenance of infrastructure like airports and telecommunications systems, among others. A few days after issuing the order, however, Dunleavy’s administration expanded the list considerably: It now includes “all other businesses that can maintain social distancing requirements and prohibit congregations of no more than 10 people in the business at a time.”
The state has not publicly released a list of the names of companies that submitted plans. But in addition to the close scrutiny applied to the oil industry’s plans, Dunleavy’s administration has also had “robust discussion” with fish processing companies, Crum, the health commissioner, said at the news conference.
Those processing companies have drawn attention from local leaders in isolated Alaska villages and hub communities, who want to know what precautions are being taken to protect residents from the potential of contracting COVID-19 from plant workers and fishing crews who come from outside the state.
So far, Dunleavy’s administration has rejected requests from municipal leaders’ to view companies’ plans, causing some frustration.
“It’s up to a local government to interpret, look at compliance, try to work out its own process and emergency procedures in relation to those state mandates,” said Nils Andreassen, executive director of the Alaska Municipal League. “And it’s just a very challenging process when you don’t have access to that information that, right now, is held at the state level.”
A number of processing companies, however, have agreed to share their plans publicly.
In Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon run, some residents have questioned whether the fishery should be shut down in an effort to protect local residents and avoid overwhelming the region’s limited health-care capacity. But as that debate continues, the local borough has posted more than a half-dozen plans on its website — including the 18-page document shared by Trident Seafoods, one of the world’s largest seafood companies.
The document lays out quarantine and reporting plans for boats, a ban on processing workers leaving company property and restrictions on contact with fishermen, like requiring that paperwork be handled by people wearing gloves. Releasing the plan helps build trust in the company’s plans, its chief executive, Joe Bundrant, said in a prepared statement.
“The health and safety of our communities, our fishermen and our employees is our No. 1 priority,” Bundrant said. “We believe that open communication is essential in helping the public understand our plans and trust that we are prioritizing their safety.”
Andreassen said local leaders’ concerns are generally more focused on smaller processing companies.
“The larger processors, I think they have good plans in place,” he said. “The concern or the unknown maybe is all the independent or smaller operators who just have less capacity to process those plans or implement some of the measures necessary that larger companies can.”
Other industries that could pose challenges for local officials trying to manage the coronavirus threat include construction and tourism, Andreassen said.
In the oil patch, one of Alaska’s four major companies, ConocoPhillips, has published its own two-page plan online, which includes a required two-week quarantine inside Alaska before out-of-state workers can travel to the North Slope.
BP isn’t releasing its plan, but spokeswoman Meg Baldino emailed a list of steps that company has taken to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus, including quarantines, more aggressive cleaning and disinfecting and extending crew shifts from two weeks to at least three weeks.
Hilcorp declined to release its plan, and an ExxonMobil spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.