Local governments are helping Alaska’s COVID-19 recovery

The debate that occurred within the Alaska Senate about extending the state’s disaster declaration was familiar for local governments. Local elected officials have faced similar discussions numerous times within our own communities as the majority issued local declarations and many still have those in place.

Just like the state’s, a local declaration is only a tool that allows our city or borough to respond as needed to meet the expectations of residents. The most compelling feature of the declaration is to empower us to stand up an emergency operations center, mobilize resources as necessary, take quick action by setting new rules for public services or facilities, and efficiently procure goods and services outside our normal practices. Throughout the pandemic, we have been at the forefront of the debate, weighing the public health needs with the costs to our communities. We’re well aware of the challenges experienced by our residents and businesses.

It is not true that all local governments acted the same during this pandemic; that all local governments issued mask orders, or restricted business activity; or that local governments are responsible for the economic crisis we find ourselves in. We can all agree that blame, if that’s the stage of the crisis we’re in, should fall on the pandemic itself. Throughout, local governments have managed an evolving state and federal legal landscape that provided guidance, mandated certain mitigation efforts and restricted our ability to act on others. In many ways, it was left to local governments to make decisions. We each took these up differently, depending on the needs of our communities, our capacity and powers.

Kodiak’s emergency operations center developed its own risk assessment and robust mitigation measures. The municipal government hasn’t had control over air traffic into the community, but has been able to respond quickly to identified cases. Testing and contact tracing, alongside mitigation measures that included requiring mask wearing, were integral to Kodiak’s response.

While the city of Fairbanks could have adopted mitigation measures, it really didn’t make sense because the surrounding borough couldn’t do the same, making mitigation measures less effective. The city focused its efforts on public education, its own facilities, and working closely with the Department of Health and Social Services. Fairbanks never issued a hunker-down order, and businesses made their own choices about whether to stay open or close.

Palmer was similar to Fairbanks, and its management team worked closely with borough emergency management. The city tried to pass a mask requirement, but was met with vehement public opposition. The school district and businesses have largely remained open, but the loss of tourism has had a large impact. As cases spiked, Palmer has seen high levels of uncertainty that added to the stress residents are experiencing.

Anchorage, of course, has taken the lion’s share of public opposition to mitigation measures. Our Assembly and administration have operated under a scenario where we have the highest population and business density, the state’s largest airport and medical facilities, and a public health department responsible for and capable of responding during a pandemic. We’ve made really tough decisions that have saved lives by preserving our health care capacity. It hasn’t been easy, but we know it worked. Now we’re committed to economic recovery, alongside the rest of Alaska.

The Denali Borough may be one of the state’s smaller boroughs, but its region has been devastated by the loss in tourism. Its economy has contracted by between 75% and 90%, based on our corresponding lost tax revenues. It wasn’t the result of the borough’s action – municipal government didn’t put in place any restrictions on business activity. There simply wasn’t any business. Instead, the focus has been on getting grants out into local communities, standing up testing facilities, and making sure there’s a path forward.

These leave out the experiences across the rest of the state, and through the Alaska Municipal League, we’ve been in close contact with all of our neighboring communities, including in rural Alaska. We know that many small communities relied heavily on tribal government collaboration, and cooperation with the tribal health services. Action has corresponded to the very real risk that our smallest communities faced, based on past experience.

Essentially, it has been local action, where taken, that has allowed businesses to recover more quickly, and we have led economic recovery in more respects than not. One simple measure would be in the amount of economic aid distributed. Thanks in large part to the governor’s and Legislature’s actions to move CARES Act funds to the local level, together we were able to distribute the bulk of our funds to businesses and residents in our communities. We were able to fine-tune economic relief in ways that we’re really proud of.

As local elected officials, it’s hard to describe our sense of frustration and powerlessness, as we wish we could do more. We have work to do, we know, which will depend on all of us working together, including with state and federal officials. Many have pointed to the fallout from the pandemic and the economic crisis – mental and behavioral health, student achievement, social disparities, food insecurity and business closures. What can we do now to preserve what we’ve accomplished – leading the nation in pandemic management – and responding to the secondary impacts of that pandemic?

Our goals, on this path to recovery, will be to work between all levels of government to continue to address the impacts of this crisis, support our most vulnerable residents, and respond effectively to those experiencing distress, as well as get our economy back on track by seeing employment and GDP growth to pre-pandemic levels. Let’s not stop there – together we can achieve a stronger economy for Alaska.

The authors serve as the executive committee of the Alaska Municipal League’s board of directors. Pat Branson is the mayor of the City of Kodiak, Clay Walker is the mayor of the Denali Borough, Pete Petersen is an Assembly member of the Municipality of Anchorage, Sabrena Combs is the vice mayor of the City of Palmer, and Jim Matherly is the mayor of the City of Fairbanks.

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