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Anchorage unveils a plan to move on from the ‘hunker down’ coronavirus order

Downtown Anchorage on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. . (Loren Holmes / ADN)

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Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz has a plan to open the city up as the new coronavirus continues to work its way through the state.

The four-phase plan, unveiled Monday, has public health and epidemiology metrics that would trigger the transition from one phase to the next. All would require a weakening of the virus’ foothold in the city and a bolstering of the city’s ability to respond to the pandemic. If the virus surges, regulations would tighten back up, Berkowitz said.

“If it doesn’t trend downward for a couple of weeks, we know that the disease is not in remission,” Berkowitz said.

Cases in Anchorage and Alaska hit their peak to date in early to mid-April, and over the past few days have flattened.

Phase one would include the opening of some non-essential businesses, including restaurants that are able to operate with appropriate distancing. Groups of up to 20 people would be allowed.

There is no date for when Anchorage would move from “hunker down” to “phase one” of the roadmap. Cases would need to be trending downward for 14 days, and testing would need to be widely available.

What, exactly, that means is not yet clear. Berkowitz said his team is working with the state and public health experts to define “widely" available.

“I can’t tell you right now the exact number, per 100,000, that it should be weekly, but that discussion is happening,” Anchorage Health Department Director Natasha Pineda said.

Berkowitz referred reporters to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s evening briefing for more clarity on when things could start opening up and said further information would be released in the coming days. The plan was initially supposed to be unveiled at noon Monday, but was delayed for four hours. Berkowitz said that was to coordinate with the state, which is similarly moving to relax regulations.

Customers practice social distancing while waiting in line to shop at Costco in South Anchorage on Sunday morning, April 19, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Berkowitz said the city and state sent the other proposed plans, and noticed how similar they were, and decided to talk further before releasing them to the public. While there are similarities, it’s not clear to what extent they are different.

Dunleavy provided more of a specific time frame for opening things up. He said things like barbershops and nail salons could open as soon as early next week. Berkowitz did not mention such luxuries, but said things will start opening up soon if cases decline.

Dunleavy said he has been in frequent contact with Berkowitz, and has a call planned with several mayors.

Anchorage residents are restricted by orders from both levels of government.

Later Monday, Dunleavy said restrictions for retail, restaurants and things like salons will be eased as early as next week, and said more information would come soon.

Berkowitz’s and Dunleavy’s plans come alongside a growing movement calling government to reinstate normalcy. The group OpenAlaska, which has about 2,600 members on Facebook, is organizing an in-car demonstration advocating for opening the state up. On Wednesday at noon, supporters of that idea plan to meet at the Loussac Library to show their opposition to the “hunker down” order.

Berkowitz said their speech is protected, and he hopes they demonstrate safely. He said a less visible but larger movement is the people in their homes, complying with the “hunker down” order.

“If people want to come try and persuade us,” Berkowitz said, he’s open to that. “But I think pressuring people to make a decision that runs counter to science and runs counter to what the medical professionals have to say is a tough sell.”

Dunleavy said he’s had no direct communication with OpenAlaska organizers, but said he likely knows them and they are “great Alaskans.”

“I think we are on a path here, fairly quickly because of our numbers, to get where we all want to be,” Dunleavy said.

Deb Seaton returns to her store after handing Richard Reed his coffee order at Side Street Espresso on Friday, April 17, 2020 in downtown Anchorage. Reed, an architect, normally works downtown but has been working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, yet still drives into downtown every day to buy coffee from the small business. “They’re like family to me,” he said, referring to owners Seaton and George Gee. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Phase one is still far from life before the virus. Face masks will still be strongly encouraged, and people will still be asked to limit trips outside of the home. Public facilities like pools, museums, libraries and playgrounds will still be closed.

A move to phase two would require 42 days of declining cases in the city, along with continued widely available testing. In phase two, more businesses would be able to open up, including sports and recreation facilities, public facilities and bars.

Phase two is closer to a normal way of life, albeit with continued precaution such as suggested frequent hand-washing and social distancing. Travel will still be discouraged.

In phase three, schools and the remaining workplaces open up, but are expected to still take precautions. Travel would open up. This phase wouldn’t be triggered until widespread community transmission is no longer occurring.

Phase four, described in the plan as the “new normal” would not kick in until a vaccine and anti-viral treatments exist.

Berkowitz repeatedly said there will not be deadlines to transition from one phase to the next. The rates of contracting the virus, and being hospitalized, will decide when things open up, not how long we have been under government orders to stay home.

“You can’t get too complacent or too cocky,” he said. “The disease lurks.”

Here are the guidelines:

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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