In the deepening coronavirus pandemic, Anchorage is still not exactly a ghost town. But it is not the same as it was even a week ago.
People are still throwing tennis balls for their dogs in the snow at Valley of the Moon Park. They’re fighting for parking spots at Costco. Pickup trucks still stack up at Midtown traffic lights.
But in ways big and small, the pandemic has altered what Anchorage feels like to live in, from coffee to courtrooms to riding the bus.
The pandemic has canceled Catholic masses. It has caused the Great Alaskan Bush Co. to lay off its exotic dancers. It has abruptly made parents home-school teachers and toilet paper a rare and sought-after commodity. It has made people consider, for the first time, just how many ICU beds and ventilators Alaska has.
And it has rapidly changed the way Anchorage residents interact with the people and businesses they encounter in everyday life.
Omnipresent signs posted at businesses tell the story of the creeping anxiety that has come to weight transactions: At Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, you can still buy bread, but a directive advised that only three customers are allowed inside at a time.
On Wednesday, at the House of Coffee drive-thru on Blueberry Street, friendly baristas wore black latex gloves as they pulled espresso shots during the morning coffee rush. Between customers, they swabbed the tablet used for credit card payments with a bleach solution.
At Arctic Pull Tabs in the still-open Dimond Center, Nhan Ton worked the cash register. A solitary customer sat at the counter. Handwritten signs warning that any sick customers would be asked to leave had been posted on the walls.
Ton said right now she is less afraid of the illness than she is of not being able to pay her bills.
“I have to work,” she said. “I’m thankful we’re still open.”
Some other retail workers are also feeling the competing demands of wanting to isolate for health and needing work in an uncertain time.
At Krispy Kreme in Muldoon, the store laid off older workers or people with health conditions so they could get unemployment benefits, said Ginger Belisle, the assistant general manager. A skeleton crew of managers is mostly who’s interacting with customers now, she said.
“I’m just happy to still have a job,” said Amber Starks, a single mom of two kids and a shift lead at the doughnut shop.
As of Wednesday, the roughly 90 Anchorage School District buildings are largely empty.
Not only were the students home by a governor’s order, on Wednesday the Anchorage School District sent thousands of teachers and staff home to telework.
“The district wants to ensure it is doing everything possible to protect staff and prevent the spread of this virus,” superintendent Deena Bishop said in an email.
The Nesbett Courthouse in downtown Anchorage, normally a grubby hive of consequential activity, was also sparsely populated Wednesday.
Many hearings have been postponed or are being held telephonically. No new trials are starting, or juries convening.
A half-dozen security guards manned a metal detector with only a slow trickle of visitors. Between 300 and 600 fewer people are entering the building each day, according to security staff.
At least one trial is still going on: Anthony Pisano is on trial for a 2017 triple-homicide.
The trial started in mid-February and was expected to last six weeks. Though a judge’s order shut down most new trials indefinitely, his was already in progress. And so it goes on in Courtroom 302 of the Nesbett Courthouse.
Just Tuesday, the jury asked that the dozen or so people watching the trial from the well-worn spectators’ benches leave the courtroom, said Kay Worley, the mother of Daniel McCreadie, one of the victims.
So on Wednesday, when a detective took the witness stand, the spectators watched from an unused courtroom in the basement, via a live video broadcast. The attorneys, judge, defendant and jury were the only people in the courtroom.
Ship Creek, transit hub
Down in Ship Creek, a steady stream of semi trucks emerged from the Port of Alaska in Anchorage. The port and shipping companies have said the flow of goods to Alaska has not been interrupted. But barren shelves in grocery stores have extended from just hand sanitizer and toilet paper to staples like pasta, rice, beans and milk as demand has outstripped supply.
Facebook groups devoted to locating restocks of supplies have popped up.
The Alaska Railroad passenger depot was locked. The railroad has canceled its winter passenger service through April 30, but will send a train April 2 to get people whose remote cabins in the Hurricane area can only be accessed by rail.
“We want to make sure they are not stranded,” said railroad president Bill O’Leary.
A still-full People Mover bus groaned to a halt at a stop near the Anchorage jail. The mayor on Wednesday announced the buses will only carry nine people at a time and will be free of cost to riders.
Over in East Anchorage, a Food Bank of Alaska mobile food pantry in Muldoon was giving away boxes of peanut butter, juice, cheese and other staples. There were a lot of new families today, said volunteer Laura Sheneman.
She wondered if demand would keep rising.
Maybe nowhere is more surreal than the Dimond Center, which as of Wednesday was still open. The Anchorage 5th Avenue Mall’s parent company, Simon Property Group, announced it would close all of its properties as of 7 p.m. Wednesday.
The place smells like Mrs. Fields cookies, and a few skaters still glide around on the private ice rink.
But starting Tuesday, when the big national chain stores started to close, it has seemed almost deserted, said Bosco’s comic book store manager Marc Hess. H&M closed. Hot Topic. Foot Locker. Bath and Body Works. One after another, Hess said. Bosco’s, locally owned, is staying open for now.
“If it hits bad, we will close. But we want to stay open and keep our staff paid,” he said.
The mall walkers are still coming. On Tuesday, a line even formed outside the Game Stop video game shop next door due to a hotly anticipated new game release, Hess said. The store limited itself to 10 customers inside at a time.
Every time Hess hears someone out beyond his store cough, he winces.
‘Relax with our moon jellies’
On Facebook, Instagram and other social media sites, people in Anchorage are increasingly finding ways to connect when the physical world is off-limits.
In his living room, local musician Nicholas Carpenter of the band Medium Build gave an impromptu Facebook Live concert to an audience of more than 60 people in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon.
An Irish fiddle band called Whiskey Jacks aimed to make up for a canceled St. Patrick’s Day gig at McGinley’s Irish Pub on Facebook Live, playing “Galway Girl” on a snowy deck while a golden retriever wandered in and out of the frame.
In Seward, the Alaska SeaLife Center — closed — offered a livestream of its jellyfish tank, otherworldly translucent pulses against a sea of black.
“Relax with our moon jellies,” the post said.
A local DJ was planning a “virtual dance party” to take place Friday night. Gyms and yoga instructors have been posting at-home workouts. An Anchorage mom named Natasha Price decided to start a nightly Instagram live storytime, where she reads children’s book to a virtual audience.
“It really hit me we might be in this for the long haul,” she said.
Over on Lake Otis Parkway, the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, a unique order of cloistered nuns, know better than anybody in town about a life spent in solitude.
Under regular circumstances, they never leave their Lake Otis Parkway monastery except for emergencies. But the light-filled chapel connected to their cloister, usually open to visitors, has closed due to coronavirus too.
“We are praying for all,” a sign on the door read.