In numerous other countries, COVID-19 is under control, and people are back at school and work. Sadly, Alaska has failed to contain the virus, with devastating economic, health and social consequences.
Some politicians act like this level of suffering is inevitable. It isn’t. In numerous other countries like Germany, Norway and Canada, the rate of COVID-19 infections is 5% to 10% that of Alaska. Their schools and businesses are open, and ours aren’t. What’s the difference? Leadership.
As economists have told legislators and Gov. Mike Dunleavy, our economy can’t recover until we control the virus. Demagogues blame public health mandates on job losses, but the truth is obvious: Alaskans don’t want to catch COVID-19 and risk death or long-term, serious illness. Even for those of us who are low-risk, we don’t want to endanger our friends, family members and neighbors who are at high risk. Nine months into this pandemic, one thing is clear: We need strong public health policies to protect people and protect jobs.
Unfortunately, the governor and his administration have not stepped up. Other states and nations have issued mask mandates and workplace safety standards to contain the virus. Alaska has done nothing on these fronts, and the governor has even made the inaccurate claim that all localities have the legal authority to issue mask mandates. Many localities — like the Mat-Su Borough — lack that authority, and even if they had it, a patchwork of local policies is a nonsensical approach to combating a pandemic. Despite workplaces and homes being the most common places COVID-19 spreads, the state Department of Labor said it hasn’t even consulted with public health staff about workplace safety standards. The Legislature has held numerous hearings with workplace safety and public health experts on effective public health measures to contain COVID-19. The administration has not followed experts' guidance, and stopped even participating in oversight hearings.
What is the result of state inaction? Individuals and business owners are left to figure it out on their own. Business owners struggling to survive don’t have time to read emerging scientific literature on a daily basis. That’s the role of the state Department of Health and Social Services. When the state fails to lead, it’s no wonder individuals are confused about what’s safe and what’s not. Of course, the administration’s bungled small-business relief program added to the pain of businesses that are already suffering as consumers stay away out of fear of the virus.
The only good news in this bleak picture is that localities from Anchorage to Valdez to Juneau have stepped up, and some of those that do have authority have issued mask mandates and COVID-19 exposure requirements. These are important steps, and thanks only to the courage of local government officials our ICUs were not overwhelmed. However, our infection rates remain high. Local action may be enough to prevent the spiraling deaths that would result from overrun hospitals, but localities simply don’t have the power to contain a virus amid incompetent state and federal administrations.
It is time for the Dunleavy administration to step up and provide leadership. Issue a statewide mask mandate for indoor environments. Promulgate workplace safety standards since indoor environments are so much more risky for transmission, especially as we head into winter.
Evidence from around the world shows that we can reduce COVID-19 infection rates to levels that allow our businesses to survive and public facilities to reopen — but only if we use the power of democratic government to stop this virus. The governor’s failure to lead is killing our businesses and inflicting incredible suffering on many Alaskans who are fighting to survive COVID-19 infections. Anarchy is a lousy response to a pandemic. Alaska needs leadership, and we need it now.
Zack Fields represents downtown Anchorage in the Alaska House of Representatives.
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