Gov. Dunleavy issues updates to health mandates as state moves to begin reopening
Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced the loosening of state health mandates implemented to limit the spread of COVID-19 Friday, including the lifting of a state mandate requiring individuals to stay home as previously required by the state.
Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum said that social distancing guidance previously issued will be applied to social religious and other gatherings, which have been loosened to include indoor gathering limited to 20 people or 25% of capacity, whichever is smaller.
Six-foot separation between non-household members is still required, and universal masking is strongly suggested.
The revised mandate still requires a 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving or returning to Alaska from out of state.
Intrastate travel between communities on the road system is permitted, but travel to communities off the road system is discouraged.
"I am eagerly awaiting what's going to happen over the next two weeks to see if things hold," Dunleavy said in a briefing Friday evening. "We're going to have cases, we're going to have people get sick. We'll probably have people get hospitalized, and we may have more deaths."
Dunleavy said that despite these risks, there are "other things out there too, that at this stage of the game, are impacting people health-wise as well."
Commenting on diverging timelines between the State of Alaska and Municipality of Anchorage, which to date has had 168 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and has taken a more cautious approach to re-opening, Dunleavy declined to specifically assert the authority to supersede municipal mandates.
"Certainly the state put these mandates in, many of the municipalities did as well, but again, I think we should be less concerned about who has the authority," Dunleavy said. "We can leave that to these folks that want to arm-chair quarterback the legal part of this. The fact is that we want to work together and move together as Alaskans, and so that's what we're going to do."
According to Health Mandate 16, titled the 'Reopen Alaska Responsibly Plan - Phase 1-A', which took effect Friday at 8 a.m., the plan for reopening the state supersedes local mandates:
"The policies contained in this Health Mandate are most effective when implemented uniformly across the State. Conflicting local provisions will frustrate this Mandate’s health and economic objectives and, therefore, are irreconcilable with this Mandate’s purposes. Therefore, unless specifically authorized by this, or any another Mandate issued by the Governor, this Mandate, Attachment A (Alaska Essential Services and Critical Workforce Infrastructure Order), Attachment B (Alaska Small Community Emergency Travel Order), and Attachments D through G expressly and intentionally supersede and preempt any existing or future conflicting local, municipal, or tribal mandate, directive, resolution, ordinance, regulation, or other order."
In an earlier briefing by the Municipality of Anchorage, Chris Schutte from the Office of Community and Economic Development said Anchorage's business mandates differ slightly from the state's plans, and Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz urged businesses to not take risks unnecessarily.
"Just because you can open, doesn't mean you should open," Berkowitz said Friday.
The relaxing of restrictions comes as the number of confirmed cases has continued to fall, with two newly reported cases announced Friday.
One case is an individual aged 10-19, and another aged 20-29.
In Friday's briefing, Alaska's Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink said that of the tests completed to date, the rate of positive tests is 2.8%.
According to DHSS data, as of Friday, 11,942 tests have been completed — 1.63% of Alaska's population.
Zink said work is ongoing with national and international partners to increase testing capacity across the state, in particular in rural fishing communities.
In response to a question about the potential uses of diluted disinfectant mixtures, Zink cautioned against ingesting disinfectants to combat COVID-19.
"In general, one of the higher toxins that we see is disinfectants and cleaning supplies, so it's really important that people are not ingesting disinfectants and cleaning supplies, because they can cause significant damage to the throat and to the lungs and to the abdomen and to the stomach," Zink said. "From a medical standpoint, don't ingest cleaning supplies please."
"As we open up, we expect to see cases," Zink said. "We continue to broadly try to think about who makes sense to asymptotically test, and we may see asymptomatic people that we test positive and we'll continue to be able to look at that and investigate those cases and the goal again is to not overwhelm the healthcare system, and being able to identify cases early and contain them so those who are vulnerable don't get sick."
Zink said that the state will likely see fluctuations up and down in the number of cases as the global pandemic continues, even as the trend in Alaska moves downward.
As a growing number of out-of-work Alaskans test the resilience of Alaska's unemployment insurance system, Department of Labor Commissioner Dr. Tamika Ledbetter said that the Department of Labor is taking a more flexible approach to determining eligibility, and trying to balance the sometimes conflicting needs of employers eager to re-open for business, and employees who are concerned for their safety.
"From a department perspective, we want those who want to work and who can do so safely to return to work," Ledbetter said. "If the employment is available, and the workplace is safe, employees cannot continue to receive unemployment benefits."
Ledbetter says that the Department of Labor Employment and Training Services Division has processed over 57,000 claims and paid out over $80 million in coronavirus-related unemployment insurance.
But complaints from self-employed workers who say they have received notices of ineligibility have mounted over the last week, some claiming that they are unable to reach anyone directly at the unemployment division, or have been given conflicting information about their eligibility.
Ledbetter urged self-employed workers to continue applying online as the unemployment system works to process applications.
"This is a brand new program, and so what we attempted to do was get folks who are traditionally eligible for unemployment through that process, and we provided information on our website and by answering questions to help those that are self-employed, gig-economy workers, and independent contractors to help us to help them," Ledbetter said. "As of Monday, we've started accepting those applications and we encourage those independent contractors and self-employed, apply, and so we are going to make sure that they are now served now that this new program is up and running."
Gov. Dunleavy in closing said that in re-opening Alaska, it's important to keep in place some of the new behaviors that have been adopted.
"If we do things the right way, keep some of those behaviors in place that we've changed — six foot away from each other, you go in the store, if you have...a face mask, if you sneeze or cough, it keeps the projection from going six feet, limits that," Dunleavy said. "We're going to beat this thing. We're going to win with your help, we're going to get our economy going with your help, and we're going to get Alaska up and going again with your help."