This week, Anchorage businesses can move to full capacity as the city enters the next phase of its COVID-19 reopening plan.
That means bars, gyms, theaters, stores and restaurants can fill up, though there will be some rules they must follow.
“The reason we have these rules is twofold: It assures the customer base that the businesses are taking care of them. It assures the workers, and the workforce, that businesses are taking care of them,” Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said Friday afternoon during a community briefing. “Having those rules in place helps generate confidence in the market.”
The transition to phase 3 of the city’s plan comes days after Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced he would lift nearly all pandemic-related restrictions Friday morning. The state on Thursday released guidelines to advise businesses on how to operate.
Berkowitz said the city’s rules will mirror the state’s guidelines, but businesses in Anchorage will be required to follow them instead of just taking them under advisement.
“I think if you have rules, it offers more comfort to the customer base,” Berkowitz said.
The mayor said some businesses have concern about being held liable if the virus is spread in their establishment. Having stricter policies to follow is a measure of protection for businesses, he said, and provides confidence to customers.
“I think it provides a measure of liability protection for those businesses that guidelines don’t provide,” he said. "It protects businesses more vigorously than the state’s approach does.”
Businesses already following the current hygiene regulations should have no trouble following the phase 3 rules, he said.
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At businesses and restaurants around Anchorage, staff and customers have to keep up social distancing. Hourly sanitation of high-touch surfaces at restaurants is required, as is the availability of hand sanitizer or places to wash hands.
Bill Popp, president of Anchorage Economic Development Corp., said he believes many more Anchorage businesses will open under Berkowitz’s phase 3 plan.
“The conversation all along has been one of opening carefully. There’s been a deep concern from business owners and employees about safety in the workplace,” Popp said. "The business community generally supports a thoughtful reopening process.”
Popp said the businesses that remained closed under phase 2 largely did so because they didn’t feel they could make money operating at 50% capacity, or they were worried that being open would put the public and their employees at risk of contracting the virus.
Popp said he hasn’t been able to make the rounds since Berkowitz announced the move to phase 3, but said he believes a lot of the businesses that remained closed due to health risks will open back up.
Also during the community briefing, the mayor announced that People Mover bus service will resume on June 1, with some additional safety measures such as capacity limits and a recommendation to wear cloth face coverings. People Mover service has been suspended since April 8, replaced by an on-demand, single-rider service for essential trips only.
The public library will begin curbside service on June 4.
Berkowitz said over the past couple months, the city has built up the capacity to track the origin of a surge in the coronavirus, which could be amplified by the lifting of regulations.
If there is an increase in cases, the city would work to identify where the cases were coming from and implement specific restrictions to stop the kind of activity leading to a surge.
“We’ve learned a lot about this disease overtime; we’ve learned a lot about containing it,” Berkowitz said.
Large events, such as sporting events and festivals, will be able to operate during the summer under phase 3. Anchorage Economic and Community Development Director Chris Schutte said there are some best practices the city has outlined which the events are expected to follow, including physical distancing and hygiene which allow such events to take place with more limited risk.
“I think it’s game on,” Schutte said of sporting events.
Despite the green light from the city and state to operate, the Alaska Baseball League announced Friday that it is canceling its season.
On Wednesday, the city confirmed that it canceled the annual Memorial Day celebration at the Anchorage’s Delaney Park Strip Veterans Memorial. Berkowitz said Friday that decision was made earlier when there was strong concern of the dangers of having large groups congregate. The decision was made in conjunction with officials at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, which is also not having its standard Memorial Day celebration.
“I think that we were concerned, extremely concerned, at the time planning had to occur, that the disease could pose a hugely significant challenge,” Berkowitz said.
Berkowitz said in moving to open things up, it allows residents to return to a more normal way of life, but it also places an emphasis on personal responsibility. Residents need to behave safely, as do businesses, he said.
“We have to be free, but we also have responsibilities," Berkowitz said.
As seasonal workers continue arriving in the city, Anchorage public health nurses are working with the state “to address cases that are positive related to critical infrastructure workers,” said Anchorage Health Department director Natasha Pineda.
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The state is in charge of managing plans that employers of those workers must submit. Five people considered critical infrastructure workers are being monitored in Anchorage based on those plans, she said.
With regard to a potential influx of tourists as summer approaches, the mayor noted that cruise ship and air traffic will be greatly reduced this summer.
“To the extent we’re going to see any tourism, it’s going to be fairly minimal,” Berkowitz said.
At present, Alaska still requires those arriving in the state to quarantine for two weeks. If Alaska lifts those requirements, Berkowitz said he hopes there will be “appropriate screening” at airports where travelers depart in addition to the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Berkowitz referenced airports in Asia that have implemented temperature checks and health questions.
“One of the reasons why Alaska has been as successful as we have in combating COVID is because we have virtually walled ourselves off, we’ve ‘islanded’ ourselves from the disease coming in from other sources,” Berkowitz said.
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