Caution may give Alaska its best shot at bouncing back quickly from the pandemic

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In the past year, we have learned a lot about the evils of COVID-19. With a mortality rate potentially 10 times greater than influenza, the consequences of infection can include long-term damage to the lungs, heart, kidneys and brain. Symptoms can linger, and there is evidence of impacts like erectile dysfunction. All of this suffering is avoidable with choices that have become second nature in the last year — social distancing, wearing a mask, ordering takeout instead of dining indoors. With widespread vaccination we can drive the prevalence of the disease even lower, and look forward to a post-pandemic world. There is now light at the end of the tunnel.

Alaskans, led by our tribal health organizations, state and local officials and public health professionals, have banded together repeatedly to drive down the prevalence of COVID-19. We have protected our health care capacity. We have been able to safely open schools, relax restrictions on businesses, and get closer to normal. With a rapid widespread vaccination, there is the real possibility of a summer where tourists come to Alaska and spend, helping to bolster our battered hospitality industry which has borne the brunt of the economic consequences of this pandemic and deserves our support.

At the same time, optimism should be conditional on the ability of Anchorage to keep case numbers low. We are all sick of terms like “new normal,” we all miss gathering at bars and restaurants with friends and family, and we are all ready to get back to the lives we led before COVID-19. This fatigue is the biggest hurdle we face.

Government mandates to a large extent only replace private choices. What happens in the rest of the pandemic depends upon our choices as individuals.

One study found only 12% of the fall in foot traffic to businesses was due to health mandates. The rest was people trying to avoid getting sick. A second study found up to 75% of the reduction in economic activity was from people avoiding infection, not mandates. A third study found that mask mandates, by reducing the risk of COVID-19, cause people to spend more time away from home, and that they are most likely to spend this time at restaurants — picking up takeout.

People make choices in response to risk, to help their communities and to provide for themselves and their families. Those choices determine what happens this spring and summer.

I leave you with a thought experiment. Assume two types of people.

1. Those who will immediately return to normal economic activity when the mandates are relaxed.

2. Those who will continue to limit their spending and time in public to protect themselves and at-risk loved ones or community members until they feel it is safe.

How many of our neighbors or potential tourists need to be in Group 2 to make it worthwhile to work together to reduce the spread of COVID-19? How many would justify us getting vaccinated as soon as we are able, to mask up, and help control COVID-19 in Anchorage? The answer will determine if thousands of tourists feel it is safe to come to Alaska this summer, and how quickly our economy will recover.

Kevin Berry is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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