JUNEAU — Alaska’s mandatory border screenings for COVID-19 turned optional Sunday as a statewide COVID-19 emergency expired at midnight.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the airport action is the biggest obvious change caused by the end of the emergency, but the state expects to find new implications over the next couple of weeks.
One issue discovered just last week: The end of the emergency means losing a third of the state’s $23 million monthly food stamp aid from the federal government.
Alaska has been operating under a state of emergency since March 2020 and now becomes the only state other than Michigan to lack a statewide COVID-19 emergency, according to the National Governors Association. In Michigan, local officials and the state’s health commissioner have issued separate declarations of emergency to fill the gap, but much of Alaska lacks a local government with health powers, and the health commissioner here lacks the power to take widespread emergency action.
“With no disaster declaration, we have no authority to do the mandatory testing anymore,” Commissioner Adam Crum said about impacts at state airports.
In place for nearly a year, mandatory airport testing has identified 2,355 positive COVID-19 cases, according to information provided to the Alaska Legislature earlier this month.
Though optional, testing is still recommended, and Crum said the screening lines at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and other state airports “would look the exact same” today as they did during the emergency.
The state has hired testing teams under contract through June 30, and the state has been working on new instructions for those teams since Friday night, Crum said.
Heidi Hedberg, director of the Alaska Division of Public Health, said it’s important that people take advantage of the optional testing so the state knows when and if new COVID variants arrive in the state. Those variants may spread more easily than older strains.
“The importance of keeping these variants out of our state for as long as possible is really critical,” said Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer.
To that end, the state is making airport testing free for everyone, Alaskans and tourists alike. Previously, travelers who arrived in-state without a prior test had to pay $250 to be tested at the airport.
In addition to the disappearance of mandatory testing, Alaska travelers no longer have to isolate themselves for five days after arriving in the state. Social distancing is still recommended but is no longer mandatory.
Alaska has been operating under a statewide emergency order since March 11, 2020, when Dunleavy declared the COVID-19 pandemic serious enough to warrant the suspension of state laws and the imposition of several public health orders. At the time, the Alaska Legislature agreed with that assessment, extending the emergency through November.
But in fall 2020, the Legislature lacked the votes to call itself into special session and Dunleavy declined to order lawmakers into session. Rather than let the emergency expire, Dunleavy issued a new 30-day disaster declaration, then repeated his act in December and January. That kept the state’s public health mandates running.
The January declaration expired at midnight Sunday morning after a dysfunctional Alaska Legislature failed to renew it. Dunleavy, who had said an extension was up to lawmakers, declined to issue a fifth declaration of emergency.
“The governor has said for weeks he will not extend the declaration while the Legislature is in session,” said Dunleavy spokesman Corey Allen Young. “Only it has the power to extend. Several lawmakers also stated the 30-day declarations were unconstitutional.”
Though legislators questioned the legality of the governor’s past actions, they urged him to act unilaterally this time around. Thirty-five of the Alaska House’s 40 members signed letters asking the governor to issue a new declaration, and the Alaska Senate voted in favor of a resolution asking the governor to act because they were unable to.
Speaking Sunday, Dunleavy said prior extensions made sense because the Legislature was not in session, case counts were rising rapidly and the state’s medical system was stressed. Now, case counts are falling, and the Legislature is in session, which meant the issue was up to state lawmakers.
“We feel confident that even without the declaration, that the tools we have in place, the systems are in place ... we believe that we have what we need right now to get through this,” he said.
Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, watched Dunleavy’s speech and pointed to a flaw in that argument: If the governor believes his administration can cope without an emergency, why did he propose an extension, and why did state officials testify that it was needed?
Dunleavy said that if circumstances change or “if we come across a hole in the program, if we come across a problem with the system ... we’ll address that.”
Though the state House is unorganized, Dunleavy said he is confident that the Legislature can provide “quick action on an item or two” to fix problems.