As COVID-19 cases surge across Anchorage and hospitals brace for maximum capacity, health officials, business representatives and city leaders — including newly sworn-in Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson — called on community members Wednesday to face the gravity of the pandemic.
“The situation has gotten worse, and cases are climbing,” Quinn-Davidson said.
Anchorage has recorded about as many COVID-19 cases in the past five days as it did from March to July. In a municipal briefing Wednesday, the message from officials was clear: Time is running out for Anchorage residents to act on their own to slow down spread of the virus.
If a more relaxed approach to the pandemic continues, the virus will reach a deadly level that Anchorage has yet to experience as hospitals will fill up and run out of staff, officials said. Further case surges could lead to business closures, they cautioned.
“When we fight each other instead of the virus, we all lose," Quinn-Davidson said.
In her first community briefing and news conference since taking over as acting mayor Friday evening, Quinn-Davidson joined a wide swath of stakeholders to discuss the pandemic, including public health officials, leaders from the city’s three major hospitals, an economics professor, the head of Anchorage’s main business trade association and owners of two local restaurants.
While there was a central theme — wear masks and stay distant — there was diversity in the individual messages and many candid statements.
A call for greater precautions to get off ‘a dangerous path’
Anchorage officials on Wednesday urged members of the public to ramp up their personal COVID-19 precautions amid a growing swell of new infections. A public health advisory issued by the municipality urges people to stay home aside from getting food, going to work or recreating outside. It also says that everyone should wear a mask in public while staying 6 feet from others, and that people should avoid gatherings, especially indoor gatherings, because “gatherings are not safe.”
“We are on a dangerous path, and the solution is simple: Wear a mask and keep your distance from people outside of your household,” Anchorage Health Department director Heather Harris said in the advisory.
In Wednesday’s briefing, business owners pleaded with the public to mask up and keep their bubble small so they can still have the option to dine in at a restaurant if they choose.
Julie Taylor, CEO of Alaska Regional Hospital, said from her vantage point at the hospital, a majority of patients staying there were exposed to someone who wasn’t wearing a mask, she said.
“I know that there’s naysayers out there, and honestly you guys are the problem,” she said of people who refuse to wear masks.
Limited staffing at Alaska’s hospitals is the No. 1 concern when it comes to health care capacity, said Ella Goss, CEO of Providence Alaska Medical Center. Alaska has always been stretched when it comes to health care staffing, Goss said, but having staff in quarantine plus a nationwide demand for traveling health care workers are also straining the system, she said.
There’s also fatigue and burnout among health care staff, she said. Even in break rooms at the hospitals, staff are sick of talking through their masks and have taken them off.
‘Employees are begging you to do this’
Business representatives also pleaded with the public to take the mask mandates seriously. Failure to do so will result in higher case numbers and more businesses shutting down permanently, they warned.
“Businesses are asking you to do this. Employees are begging you to do this,” said Bill Popp, CEO of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp.
Popp said he’s concerned that longstanding businesses could shutter during the winter because of people’s defiance of the mask mandate.
Popp’s words were backed up by Heidi Heinrich, a longtime waitress at Lucky Wishbone and now a co-owner of the restaurant.
“Those of us on the front lines, those of us who are trying to keep our businesses open, those of us who are hoping to see 2021 need you to do this, or we won’t be able to,” Heinrich said.
[ABOVE: Watch Anchorage officials, health care leaders and business representatives participate in Wednesday’s city briefing.]
Pressing for a statewide mask mandate
Quinn-Davidson said city officials internally have discussed more enforcement of Anchorage’s requirement for mask-wearing in indoor public spaces, and she said that some businesses are “begging” for more enforcement. She said the city can only do so much, but there are discussions about how to increase enforcement.
Quinn-Davidson said she wants Gov. Mike Dunleavy to institute a statewide mask mandate, since Anchorage is the economic and medical hub for the state and attracts visitors from all over.
With hospital staffing in Anchorage strained and case counts rising across Alaska, hospitals could quickly become maxed out as patients are flown to Anchorage for advanced care. And having fewer available doctors and nurses means there’s also less of a cushion to staff for a surge of cases now.
At the start of the pandemic, hospitals working with the state and the city helped set up the Alaska Airlines Center as an alternate care site in case of a COVID-19 surge. At the time, they had planned to use staff from places like surgery centers and doctors' offices that had temporarily closed in the early days of the pandemic, Goss said. However, now there’s not enough staff to provide that care.
“We do not have enough staff in the city, in the state, to open up that center and provide even midlevel or moderate care for people going to the alternate care site,” Goss said.
The cause of economic recession
As far as future mandates go, Quinn-Davidson said there have been internal discussions, but she does not want to go back into a “hunker-down” state. Right now, she said, it’s on the public.
Anchorage’s initial hunker-down phase early this spring, when much about the coronavirus was still unknown, brought normal life to a screeching halt and immediately shuttered many businesses across the municipality. After gradual reopenings through the spring and rising virus cases in the summer, the city administration under former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz closed bars and restaurants to indoor service again in August, fueling a smoldering animosity to new heights.
Some restaurants refused to close, requiring the city to take them to court. Angry mobs protested outside Anchorage Assembly meetings, one time waiting until the meeting let out at midnight to confront Berkowitz and the Assembly in a threatening confrontation.
Quinn-Davidson said she’s weighing the economic costs as well as the public will in considering future mandates.
“Your decisions are the ones that set us up for success or not,” she said, addressing the public.
Much of the public opposition to mandates comes from people arguing that while the virus is bad, shutting down the economy could be worse.
Kevin Berry, an economics professor at University of Alaska Anchorage who participated in Wednesday’s briefing, said two recent studies found that the pandemic-related economic recession is actually the result of individual behavior, rather than government mandates.
Berry said while some people might feel safe going about their lives as normal, they do not represent a majority of the community.
“The vast majority of the downturn was due to voluntary behavior — people who were afraid of getting sick,” Berry said. “That is the driver of our economic malaise.”