First in an occasional series, Our Towns, by Alaska writers about life during the coronavirus pandemic.
HOMER — Every morning at 8, a sapphire-blue Ford Escape pulls out of the parking lot at our town’s hospital and starts up the empty highway north. In the back seat are the local COVID-19 test samples from the previous day.
Neil Schott, 32, a physical therapist at South Peninsula Hospital, has been making the Wednesday runs since March. He stops in Ninilchik and Soldotna to grab their samples and drives on. When he gets to Anchorage, Schott leaves the cooler boxes inside the front door at the state testing lab, waves to somebody behind the glass and scrubs the Escape’s interior with bleach wipes before the four-and-a-half-hour journey home.
“There aren’t that many cars coming from Anchorage, and we don’t want to bring anything back,” he said.
The highway to Anchorage has long been Homer’s avenue to the outside world. Since March, with the sudden bankruptcy of the commuter airline Ravn, it has become a crucial health care link.
The long drive means a turnaround of three days or more for COVID-19 tests from Homer — not ideal for keeping on top of a pandemic. But only four of the local tests so far have come back positive, and more than 400 have been negative.
In a world with more than a quarter-million pandemic deaths, Homer’s isolation at the end of the Sterling Highway has proved to have certain advantages.
Now things are about to turn around. When Schott started making the courier runs, he could drive 15 minutes without seeing another car. Lately, though, he’s been encountering RVs headed south.
In Homer, hunkering down is what we do every winter. What the rest of the world calls “reopening” is really just the annual “opening” here: Spring, when we watch for the arrival of sandhill cranes and Western sandpipers and the first visitors from Anchorage, burning with cabin fever as they sail over the Baycrest hill viewpoint.
With fewer travelers from outside Alaska expected in this pandemic year, businesses are hoping enough Alaskans drive down from Anchorage to produce a break-even summer. But on the tourist magnet of the Homer Spit, there is also uncertainty around the seasonal opening — concerns about compliance with shifting state mandates, the health and safety of employees and the rise of active local resistance to continued social distance measures.
And hovering above all, the worry that the traditional lifeline of the summer economy could turn out to be a transmission vector finally bringing the novel coronavirus full-bore to the end of the road.
Spring in Homer was unusually quiet. Schools and restaurants were closed and traffic on Pioneer Avenue was light. But in the aisles of the town’s two grocery stores, where face-mask use has been around 50-50, shoppers seemed gripped by an unusual focus and intensity.
The shared anxiety around Homer has been reminiscent of feelings here at the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, especially the atmosphere of the first few months, when brown-pudding crude hovered in the current gyres offshore — the same uncertainty about what was coming next, the wait for inconclusive test results, the harried incident-command meetings, the doubts that officials knew what they were talking about, the slow-growing divisiveness, the empty-sounding vows to never let this happen again.
This time, city and health officials in Homer have been pleased by the quick and successful first response to the pandemic. The curve stayed flat. Social distancing compliance, officials say, has been good — stronger than in many, perhaps most, other Alaska communities. Volunteers have hand-sewn more than 3,400 face masks for health workers and the public. Homer is the only town in Alaska taking samples of wastewater effluent for national research into early detection of Covid-19 flare-ups. Educational signs and banners were posted, proclaiming “Homer is a COVID-SMART Community.”
When the first patient at South Peninsula Hospital tested positive, in March, he was medevaced to Anchorage, to make room for more cases. Beds and oxygen equipment were set up at the nearby Christian Community Church to handle overflow. Health officials kept their eyes on the highway; a friend told me that when he went in for a medical checkup, he was asked if he’d traveled north of Ninilchik lately.
Meanwhile, much of the town continued about its business. In my neighborhood, the drone of chain saws filled the air, as a forest at the end of the block was clear-cut for a new housing subdivision. At the Safeway store, a young employee in a face mask waited by the door to wipe down shopping carts after each use. On the beaches, restless Homerites took long quarantine rambles that would be the envy of locked-down cities in Europe and Asia.
The Homer Food Pantry shifted to drive-through delivery, and Homer High School made plans for a drive-through graduation. On May 18, with families watching from cars and trucks in the parking lot, the 78 graduating seniors will drive one at a time to the school entrance and then walk, alone, across a stage to pick up their diplomas. A public procession of cars down Pioneer Avenue will follow.
The annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, which traditionally kicks off the tourist season, was switched this weekend to a virtual format, with an online map of sightings replacing the usual lecture-hall gatherings and beachside binocular clusters.
And in the harbor, halibut charter operators have teamed up to ask regulators later this month to relax bag limits for their customers, which were cut in recent years as a conservation measure. The charter skippers argue that a more generous bag limit this season might entice more Alaskans to pay to go fishing but would be unlikely to push against their fleet’s overall allocation given the expected fall-off in Outside tourists. Restaurants, hotels and craft shops are watching to see who comes.
“What I’m hearing from the Spit is that businesses are just hoping to salvage the season, to cover their costs and keep their staff,” Homer Chamber of Commerce executive director Brad Anderson told me.
“There’s a real tension between wanting to get back to normal with business, but fear of sacrificing people’s health,” said the city’s public information officer, Jenny Carroll. “We’re just trying to follow best practices that the state sees moving forward to accomplish both.”
But as April rolled on with no new COVID-19 cases in Homer, public wariness started turning to weariness.
Political differences over social distancing rules opened along fracture lines that have become all-too evident in Homer lately, beginning with a bitter city council recall campaign in 2017. People on both sides tell of checkout-line confrontations over face masks. One of the first protests in Alaska against the coronavirus rules was held on the Homer Spit.
Then last week, on the Baycrest overlook, somebody sliced down the “COVID-SMART Community” banner hanging from the sign that welcomes visitors to the Halibut Fishing Capital of the World.
On April 18, a group calling themselves Homer’s Sons of Liberty staged a protest barbecue on the beach. Several participants drove up the highway a few days later to take part in a bigger Anchorage protest against the state closure policies, including the ban on non-essential travel.
The Homer News reported no more than 15-20 people clustered around beach fires at any one time during the protest. Organizers said as many as 100 stopped by. A state mandate in effect at the time barred any such group event and limited non-household gatherings to ten people.
In the newspaper, organizer Ashton Callahan struck a moderate tone. This was not a political rally with flags and banners, he said; it was a protest marking the constitutional right to assemble. Face-mask use had been voluntary, he said. “Everyone chose breathing fresh ocean breeze was the healthiest option,” he told the paper.
On the group’s Facebook page, however, all masks were off.
Participants shared assertions linking state mandates to conspiracies that would spoil the economy and take down President Donald Trump, corner the vaccine market for big pharma or promote world domination by Bill Gates. There were discussions of “the plandemic” and the alleged hazards of inhaling excessive carbon dioxide behind a face mask. And exhortations to stand tall for the constitution.
“What the heck happened to Dunleavy? Was he abducted by the science aliens?” asked one member when the conservative governor left social distancing rules for businesses in place.
One discussion thread considered whether the state burn ban on private property was unconstitutional, offering up a rich metaphor for epidemiology. Mixed in elsewhere, among anti-vaccination arguments and reposted videos that had been blanked out for violating social media accuracy standards, were endorsements of “herd immunity” through the spread of the virus and eye-rolling emoji jokes about gullible Homer “sheeple.”
“I was in Kenai today and it was way less strict up there,” Callahan wrote. “Felt much more normal.”
“Ya and soldotna has had 6 cases and kenai 4 and sterling 2,” came a reply. “Honestly people are kind [of] over it up here and like whatever and going back to life.”
“A mandate is a strong suggestion - it is NOT a law. I am not wearing a mask,” another member wrote. “If the store or restaurant REQUIRES it, then I will shop/dine elsewhere.”
The Sons of Liberty protest brought an edginess to Homer, where a disproportionate number of those without masks in grocery stores were dressed in camouflage. East of town, the Fritz Creek Store posted a sign requiring face masks, per state rules, and advising customers with constitutional concerns to “please, take it up with your state representative, not the people who work here.”
Strong reactions to the Sons of Liberty also appeared in the weekly newspaper, where one letter writer cited the group’s grasp of science and said a better name would be “Sons of Stupidity.”
Homer wants a reputation as a safe destination for Alaskans, said the chamber’s Anderson. Under Dunleavy’s reopening plan, there should be little reason to worry over in-state travel down the highway, he said, due to Alaska’s small number of cases, the lowest of any state.
On Facebook, however, Homer residents complain there’s a loophole in this plan at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, which is Alaska’s own end-of-the-road connection to the world. The governor’s measures “require” visitors from outside Alaska to spend 14 days in quarantine on arrival. But that mandate, like others, is not enforced by the state or by police. It falls under what Dunleavy calls the “personal responsibility” plan. It is not likely to be popular with tourists.
“Why would a visitor come to Homer, say to go halibut fishing, if they had to spend the first 14 days in their hotel room?” a letter writer from Bozeman, Montana, asked in last week’s Homer News.
Homer police have no plans to enforce 14-day quarantines, restaurant seating limits, or any of the other COVID-19 mandates from the state, chief Mark Robl told me this week. Complaints from the public do come in, he said, and for anything “particularly egregious” the complainant is pointed to the state’s website.
All that could be different, he concedes, if the coronavirus takes off.
“This has been changing every day,” Robl said, “and if a second wave hits, who’s to say what happens next?”
The vandalism to the COVID-SMART banner and the disappearance of about 20 “closed” signs from city playgrounds are another matter. Robl said police are investigating those incidents as criminal mischief cases.
“There is a contingent out there that believes the government has overreacted on this. I suspect it’s connected to them,” Robl said. “There’s some social unrest connected to all this, that’s for sure.”
With visitors now starting to roll into town, the city plans to repair the banner with neon green tape meant to look like band-aids — a symbol of resilience and recovery, according to the city’s public information officer.
Meanwhile, after a month with no new signs of the virus, three test samples from South Peninsula Hospital were reported back from the state lab last week as positive.
One of those, an Anchor Point man reported to be in his eighties, was tested only after being admitted to the hospital for other serious health problems. He died Tuesday, with COVID-19 listed as a contributing but not primary cause, which made him the tenth official coronavirus death for Alaska, and the first to die in Homer.