In an Alaska town where almost everyone lives under the same roof, the pandemic threat feels different

About 80% of the residents of Whittier live in a single high-rise apartment building.

In the past, before the new coronavirus, the conversation in an active Facebook group for residents of Whittier was dominated by the chitchat of small-town Alaska life: reports of bears eating out of the trash bin, offers of free used treadmills for giveaway, a recitation of the nightly dinner special at the Anchor Inn.

Since mid-March, the posts, and the focus of the community, have turned almost exclusively to the threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic in this tiny, singular hamlet at the edge of Prince William Sound.

Whittier is like nowhere else in Alaska. About 80% of the roughly 280 year-round residents live in a single building, the Begich Towers, a 14-story high-rise that sits opposite a reindeer pen. Virtually everyone else in town lives in a second, smaller condo building called Whittier Manor. There are no single-family homes and no neighborhoods in Whittier, a railroad and shipping hub that also serves as a jumping-off point for Prince William Sound.

Everyone lives together in Manhattan-style density and proximity. Except instead of a big city, Whittier is hemmed in by the wilderness in every direction.

The only way in or out of town by land is through the 2.5-mile Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, blasted through a mountain and operated by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. Once you’re on the Portage side of the tunnel, Anchorage and its 300,000 inhabitants are only an hourlong drive away.

It is this combination of isolation, density and access that makes the coronavirus feel like a very different kind of menace to the residents of Whittier, said city manager Jim Hunt.

“We’re at the end of the tunnel, backed up to the water,” he said. “There’s a real sense of vulnerability.”

The Washington Post even used Whittier as a model for a recent simulation of “the spread of a fake disease through a population.”

In recent days and weeks, the city has started warning people on the Bear Valley side of the tunnel that visitors other than residents, their caregivers and employees of essential businesses are not allowed into town.

Begich Towers has closed itself to visitors and on Tuesday adopted new restrictions, including allowing only one family at a time inside the elevators or laundry room. A faction of residents wants to see the tunnel closed.

And while there are no confirmed coronavirus cases in Whittier, everyone is thinking the same thing: How do you keep the virus away when just about the whole town lives in a single building? What will happen if -- or when -- the pandemic makes its way here?

“My most pressing question is: Are we doing enough?” said Peter Denmark, a Whittier resident who owns a kayaking business and has questioned city preparation for the virus. “We’re still clean, by all accounts. But I think everybody knows that’s a false sense of security.”

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Tunnel concerns

People in Whittier say they are abiding by state lockdown mandates as best they can, with most people staying in their condominiums except for brief forays outside for walks or groceries. People aren’t gathering in condos for dinner parties, or hanging around the bar at the Anchor Inn — open now only for takeout.

But they are concerned about the possibility of recreation-seeking visitors entering the town in large numbers, especially as Whittier — notorious for dismal weather — sees a string of sunny spring days.

“I think it’s really worrisome to our residents that there’s this mandate there should be no travel between communities,” said Annie Reeves, the assistant city manager. “But then there’s this opportunity to go out and recreate — so people are coming into our community, to enjoy the sunshine and whatnot. I don’t know if people are necessarily following the mandates.”

Last weekend, about 300 people came to Whittier through the tunnel, said Mayor Dave Dickason, who lives in the Begich Towers. That includes returning residents. At the Bear Valley side of the tunnel, a flyer now explicitly tells visitors to stay away from town unless they live there, are a caregiver or work for an essential business.

“There’s the undertone of the unknown when people come through the tunnel, and fear for what kind of threat it might pose,” said Hunt, the city manager.

A lot of Whittier’s residents live there because of the natural isolation, said Dickason. More than a few remember the era before the tunnel opened to vehicle traffic in 2000 when it was even more onerous to get in and out of the community.

“They definitely like solitude,” he said. “So when something like this happens, boy, they really long for those old days when there was no access, or easy access.”

“I want them to shut the tunnel down,” said Karen Cole, a housekeeper at the Anchor Inn, the only combination hotel-restaurant that operates all winter, mostly housing people who come to Whittier for state DOT or other work hitches. “But it is state-ran. So they really can’t.”

About 30% of Alaska’s freight enters the state through Whittier and the tunnel, according to Dickason.

“We move a tremendous amount of freight in here,” D said. “It would be devastating if they were to close it down.”

“I think that’s a big driver of the community’s concern: We can’t stop people from coming into our city,” Reeves said.

Tower concerns

Then there’s the simmering worry inside the high-rise where most Whittier residents live. Begich Towers has passed new rules restricting visitors, elevator use and other measures aimed at keeping common spaces as untouched as possible.

“There’s the fear that if it gets into one of the buildings it’s going to spread quickly,” said Todd Perez, the owner of the Inn at Whittier and a few other seasonal businesses in town.

There have been discussions about where to quarantine people outside of Begich Towers if the need should arise. Two ideas were floated: the empty cruise ship terminal and the Inn at Whittier hotel.

Reeves, the assistant city manager, says she’s proud of community efforts to keep residents safe during the pandemic.

“It’s really rather remarkable for being such a tiny town, that we can pull together so quickly. Always with that vision of ‘how do we keep our tiny town safe?’” she said. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. And I don’t want to experience it again.”

That’s not to mention the existential question mark hanging over every Alaska community that relies on tourism: What will summer look like? While cruise ships come to Whittier, most never make the community a “port of call,” meaning visitors typically get on transportation and quickly leave town.

But the broader tourism industry looks certain to take a hit, said Denmark, the kayaking business owner. Mid-April is usually the time when Whittier shifts from winter quietude to full-bore prep for summer tourism.

His business has already seen a wave of cancellations from youth groups that make up a big share of his business.

“I can only speak for myself but I’m screwed," he said.

Meanwhile a local fish processor, Whittier Seafoods, is trying to hire workers. In open letters, some in the community have raised questions about how the workers will be screened, quarantined and housed as the pandemic continues -- questions being asked in fish processing communities all over Alaska.

“Whittier Seafood is an integral part of the community and we gotta find a way,” Denmark said.

‘Brighten up my day!!!’

With all the uncertainty, people in Whittier say they are savoring the simple joys of living in their unique town, like blue-sky days and the return of the kittiwakes.

On the What’s What in Whittier online forum, one resident pleaded for a break from the pandemic hang-wringing.

“Too much ugly stuff being posted everywhere. Post a pic you have of PWS or Whittier….Brighten up my day!!!” he implored.

Almost 100 people responded. They shared photographs of halibut, full moons rising over snowy mountains and a few shots of people from before social distancing, crowded together and smiling.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.