Like many other Alaska travelers, I’ve spent time plowing through the state of Alaska’s latest updates to its health mandate addressing travel. For travelers arriving by air from out of state, there are lots of moving parts: COVID-19 tests within 72 hours of travel, an option for tests five days prior to travel, paperwork on arrival and the continued prospect of a 14-day quarantine.
For most vacationers to Alaska, whether they’re on an organized tour or visiting friends and relatives, a 14-day quarantine is enough to kill the deal.
Alaskans who are traveling Outside do not have to get tested prior to departure. If your trip is five days or shorter, you can get tested on your return and will be asked to quarantine until you get the results. If your trip is six days or longer, you’ll follow the same protocol as visitors.
“We really want people to get tested before they come,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer. “I’d hate for a traveler to come up and get tested at the airport and discover they have the virus. Then they’re stuck. We’re seeing lots of people who are asymptomatic and just don’t know they’re spreading the virus.”
Some travelers who are planning to come can’t get a COVID-19 test ahead of time at their point of origin, particularly if they have no symptoms. “It’s not possible everywhere,” Zink said.
I spoke with one family in Georgia who canceled their trip to Alaska because they could not get tested in time. That was two weeks ago. But beginning June 8, the Georgia Department of Health is setting up free testing in Savannah, even for those with no symptoms.
“The availability of tests is changing very quickly,” Zink said. (Alaska’s COVID-19 information webpage has a link to an interactive testing locator map for the state and for the U.S. There also are new at-home tests available, such as those manufactured by LabCorp.)
Screeners at the airport will accept negative results from tests up to five days beforehand, but those travelers still must be tested again at the airport and must agree to minimize interpersonal contact until the new test results are available.
Speaking of screeners, inbound travelers will notice several groups of people when they get off their flight. First, there will be greeters who will welcome travelers as they get off the plane and guide them to screeners. Screeners will ask questions and collect completed forms, including the mandatory travel declaration. Travelers are encouraged to download the form prior to travel and fill it out.
Depending on whether the traveler has been tested and when, screeners may direct them to the testers who will do a nasal swab and check for COVID-19. There’s a spot on the form to fill out the location where you’ll be quarantining, if necessary.
“Although screening in Anchorage and Fairbanks is new, they’ve been screening in Nome, Kotzebue and Bethel for a month and a half,” Zink said. “And in Cordova and Juneau, we’ve been screening since the very beginning.”
Screening upon arrival is an important factor in slowing the spread of the virus, but it’s just one part of the program. Full details are available online at the state health department’s COVID-19 page offering health guidance for travelers to Alaska.
“The Watch the Window part is really important,” Zink said, referring to how officials are urging travelers to minimize their contacts with others during the 14-day window after arrival. “You’re still at a higher risk for 7-14 days after traveling,” she said. “We want you to go outside. Go hiking. Enjoy the outdoors — but don’t enjoy other people. Order your fishing license online. Order your groceries online and let them load them into the back of your RV. Limit your time indoors to 10 minutes.”
The number of flights into Anchorage is increasing as the days get longer. The traveler count still is way down, but there will be more flights and more airlines ramping up service. Right now, most of the flights are on Alaska Airlines and Delta between Anchorage and Seattle. Nonstops to San Francisco, Portland and Chicago don’t start until July. Will the screeners be meeting every flight?
“Yes,” Zink said. “Just like the TSA, we’ll be there.”
Even though travelers must list the address where they’re going to quarantine or wait for their test results, the police are not going to track or monitor you. “We live in a free society,” Zink said.
In addition to the new greeting/screening and test stations at the airport, Zink still stresses the importance of basic hygiene and social distancing. That includes washing your hands frequently and wearing a mask in public. “Wearing masks is the right thing to do,” Zink said. “It’s like wearing a seat belt or obeying speed limits. It’s something that we can all do together.”
Additional information for travelers is available at covid19.alaska.gov/travelers.
The new guidelines are getting a mixed response from travel companies around the state. “The mandates are hard to figure out,” said Dave Karp, one of the owners of Knik River Lodge.
“Everything’s fine until someone tests positive. This is one huge social experiment,” he said. “We all have the best of intentions, but there’s not a common path forward.”
“I know we all want to get back to normal life,” Zink said. “But there’s a worldwide pandemic going one. I’m over COVID, too. It’s not fun. But the enemy is the virus and not each other.”
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