Alaska’s quarantine order has helped thwart COVID-19 but devastated tourism. Will Dunleavy keep it?

Michael Wald owns the guiding company Arctic Wild, which runs trips each summer to Alaska wilderness destinations like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Katmai National Park. (Courtesy Michael Wald)

Since late March, Arctic Wild has been in a deep freeze.

The guiding business normally takes clients to some of Alaska’s most spectacular wilderness destinations, like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Katmai National Park.

But two months ago, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said that all travelers coming into the state would have to quarantine themselves for two weeks — which effectively shut down Arctic Wild and an array of other tourism businesses.

“People aren’t going to come to Alaska and sit in a hotel room for two weeks to go on a 10-day vacation,” Wald said. “That’s a non-starter.”

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Public health experts have credited measures like the quarantine order with holding Alaska’s COVID-19 case count below every other state in the country, and at least one warns that revoking it could cause a flare-up.

But Dunleavy’s order is set to expire Tuesday, and he has not said if he plans to extend or modify it.

Tourism advocates and leaders in industries like oil and gas and fishing, which depend on out-of-state workers, say they have not actively lobbied Dunleavy to drop the order; they say the decision is best left to public health officials. But they also note that the quarantine mandate has come with major costs for businesses.

Wald’s business has already lost 40 percent of his yearly income, and may have to return clients’ deposits, he said. And, Wald added, he’s eager for more details from the state about what kind of tourism will be possible in Alaska over the remainder of the season.

“We’re really anxiously awaiting some guidance from the state,” Wald said. “I’ve got clients calling and emailing every day: ‘Hey, what’s going on with our trip?’ And I don’t have an answer for them.’”

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A spokesman for Dunleavy did not respond to a request for an interview. An Alaska health department spokesman, Clinton Bennett, declined to make officials available for an interview, saying the state is evaluating data and aims to announce any changes this week.

The state has good reasons to proceed cautiously.

One of the hallmarks of COVID-19’s spread across the world has been travel, said Jared Baeten, an epidemiology professor and vice dean at University of Washington’s School of Public Health.

“The most connected places in the world — New York, for example — have had the most substantial outbreaks,” Baeten said. “The places that have been more isolated, particularly ones that have been able to seal themselves off, often have been able to contain the virus.”

If Alaska officials loosen the quarantine requirements, Baeten said, they should be simultaneously standing up different tools for containing the coronavirus and monitoring for its presence.

That could include systems like ramped up contact tracing, which is a technique to track who’s been exposed to infected people. Another option is fever screenings for people arriving in Alaska, or possibly some testing of incoming travelers, Baeten said.

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Then, officials should assess the data every week to see if or how cases rise. They should also set thresholds ahead of time that, if crossed, would prompt the state to pull back.

“You’ve got to lay out all the public health strategies that can have impact, and then try to layer them together,” he said.

Some health-care professionals remain skeptical about changing the quarantine mandate.

If it’s dropped, residents should expect a jump in cases, given a lack of capacity for widespread COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, said Ben Shelton, an Anchorage doctor who works with an advocacy group for emergency room physicians.

“We’re going to introduce it into the community,” he said. “And the way Alaskans are handling this, not wearing masks and not being cautious, it is going to flare up again.”

Officials in two major Alaska industries that rely on seasonal and out-of-state workers said that companies haven’t been pushing to have the quarantine mandate lessened, in spite of the fact that it’s added substantial costs to their operations.

Oil companies have been housing workers at Anchorage hotels during their two-week quarantines before they fly to shifts on the North Slope.

“It’s just the reality of the situation,” said Kara Moriarty, president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

Seafood processing businesses have been going a step further, placing their workers under the watch of security guards to make sure they abide by the two-week quarantine.

Some companies are spending millions of dollars to comply with Alaska’s health mandates, but they see the quarantine as an important precaution and will keep it regardless of any changes to the state’s requirements, said Nicole Kimball, vice president at the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. The state has indicated that quarantine requirement specific to the processing industry will more likely be tightened than loosened, she added.

“I don’t see the seafood sector removing that part of their plans,” Kimball said. “It’s necessary to keep communities safe.”

Wald, with the guiding company, said the challenge for his business has been the uncertainty. He said he’s used to scheduling each day of his summers more than a year in advance, and now he can’t plan even two weeks ahead right now.

He said he’s waiting anxiously to see whether the two-week quarantine is going to stretch into the summer. And he also said he’s frustrated by how the country hasn’t used the past two months of social distancing measures to set up better alternatives to contain the virus, like widespread testing.

“If you could get people tested before a trip, you could operate, and then the economy would be functioning,” he said. “As it is, we can’t responsibly take people out, and it seems like a real failure of leadership. So I’m angry.”

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