JUNEAU — Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced Tuesday that a one-time political rival will help lead a new team tasked with looking at ways to aid Alaska’s economy amid concerns with the new coronavirus.
Former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat whom Dunleavy defeated in the 2018 gubernatorial race, and former Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, will lead the so-called Alaska Economic Stabilization Team. Dunleavy's office said former elected officials and economic leaders will also be involved.
The COVID-19 illness causes mild or moderate symptoms in most people. But severe symptoms are more likely in the elderly or those with existing health problems. Six people have tested positive in Alaska, according to figures released Tuesday evening.
Dunleavy's office said the new team will work with his administration on an economic plan as the state prepares for the impact of the virus. There are worries about the tourism, fishing and oil sectors, along with the service industry and other businesses.
The state, which has struggled with a longstanding deficit, relies on oil and earnings from the Alaska Permanent Fund to help pay for government. North Slope oil prices have fallen below $30 a barrel, and markets of late have been volatile.
Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner said Begich and Parnell are two recognized leaders in Alaska. They represent different ends of the political spectrum, and Dunleavy wanted the effort to be as bipartisan as possible, Turner said.
The Senate's budget-writing committee has included in a spending measure $15 million for public health and emergency programs related to the new coronavirus.
The funding was requested by Dunleavy's administration, which also proposed using $8.5 million in cruise ship funds to help communities visited by cruise ships guard against COVID-19. The Senate Finance Committee also accepted that request.
Dunleavy's budget office said the $15 million could be used for things like temporary housing for individuals under quarantine or who need to be isolated and have no other options; medical and protective equipment; transportation to housing or for medical assistance; and personnel.
If the bill passes the full Senate, it would return to the House for consideration.
The Legislature previously approved about $4.1 million in state funds and authorized receipt of federal funds to help respond to the virus.
Meanwhile, RavnAir Group, which provides air service to many rural Alaska communities, said it will begin “verbal risk screening” of passengers and employees and implement new cleaning protocols for its aircraft.
The company, in a statement, said it is asking passengers if they've come from a foreign country or a U.S. state experiencing an outbreak, if they've been exposed to anyone who has or may have the virus, and if they have symptoms of a serious illness or COVID-19.
There also is a visual assessment for symptoms, the company said, adding that it turned away four people Tuesday using the protocol and directed them to medical facilities.