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Rural Alaska

Mayor orders two-week coronavirus lockdown in Utqiaġvik

  • Author: Jenna Kunze
    , Arctic Sounder
  • Updated: September 8
  • Published September 7

People walk on Stevenson Street in Utqiagvik on Tuesday, December 13, 2016. (Marc Lester / ADN Archive)

In an effort to halt the spread of COVID-19 on the North Slope, Mayor Harry Brower Jr. issued an emergency “hunker down” order for Utqiaġvik on Sept. 1, effective for two weeks.

The order, which exclusively applies to Utqiaġvik, allows people to leave their homes only if they work for “critical infrastructure” or services, and to shop for groceries, seek health care, or get fresh air. Religious services are permitted under social distancing guidelines.

Critical infrastructure and services exempt from the hunker down order include public health workers, employees at public works facilities, airports, shipping services, essential construction, grocery stores, banks, public safety and essential government workers. A full list can be found attached to the ordinance at north-slope.org.

Last week, Utqiaġvik saw its largest single-week spike of 13 positive COVID-19 cases, bringing the total caseload to 45. As of Sept. 4, there were 16 active cases in the community, with 49 cumulative cases to date.

A growing number of cases have been caused by community spread, according to health officials at Arctic Slope Native Association (ASNA). That means that an increasing number of sick people are unknowingly spreading the virus, rather than travelers bringing the virus in from off-slope travel.

The hunker down order additionally requires all persons must wear a mask in public spaces, and maintain a six-foot distance from others. This does not apply to children under 12, or people with hearing or breathing difficulties.

The North Slope Borough School District in Utqiaġvik, which opened on Aug. 27 with a “high risk” status, will continue with remote instruction and meal services. Village schools opened with medium risk status on Thursday, and continued with a blended model of in-person and remote learning.

Utqiaġvik’s schools are tentatively slated to move to a medium risk status on Sept. 21, according to the school district’s website.

Mayor Brower could not be reached for comment, but in a statement provided by his staff encouraged local businesses to provide community safeguards.

“We trust folks will do the right thing and appreciate our business partners in all of our communities,” Brower’s statement said. “But companies like Wells Fargo, our only bank on the North Slope, must provide the same safeguards they are using in larger Alaskan communities. Complimentary hand sanitizer and even tele-banking for our elderly and most vulnerable who don’t have Internet. We are far away from Anchorage, but our residents are still your customers. I will do everything I can to protect our residents.”

The order lastly requires residents and visitors wash their hands, and for businesses to make soap, running water and hand sanitizer available for customers and employees.

Last week, two state employees from the Department of Health and Social Services traveled to Utqiaġvik to assist with contact tracing and install a new record-keeping system. Jason Bishop, an emergency management specialist, and his wife Laura Bishop, a nurse consultant, said they were sent to Utqiaġvik by the state.

While in town, the Bishops met with Mayor Brower, incident commander and police Chief Jeffrey Brown, public health leadership, Samuel Simmons Memorial Hospital executive leadership, village and tribal leaders and Stuaqpak store management, Jason Bishop told The Sounder.

Additionally, the Bishops introduced and trained local public health staff on a new centralized database service.

Borough Health and Social Services Director Glenn Sheehan said that the Bishops’ visit did not affect the hunker down order.

“The Bishops were able to explain and install a program new to the state through the federal government to use for tracking and record keeping,” Sheehan said.

Sheehan added that the state employees also gave Utqiaġvik’s lone contact tracer, public health nurse Andrey Boskhomdzhiev, a “much needed day off” since they are trained in contact tracing.

The emergency order may be extended past Sept. 15 if the situation warrants, the ordinance reads.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that a statement from Mayor Brower was prepared by staff; the statement was provided by staff.

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