In an acceleration of his administration’s plan to reopen Alaska’s economy, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced Tuesday that most business restrictions related to COVID-19 health mandates would be lifted in just three days. With few exceptions, Alaska businesses can now be open at 100% of their legal capacity. Masking and distancing requirements for businesses, once required, have been left to business owners’ discretion. Although municipalities can choose to maintain more restrictive policies, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz indicated it that Alaska’s largest city will follow the state’s lead, with some modifications, within days. The same is likely to be the case for the state’s other cities where COVID-19 has been most prevalent. What happens next, both in terms of public health and Alaska’s economy, depends on us.
More than any other U.S. state, Alaska is in a unique position with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic. Through a confluence of good fortune, early action by municipal and state leaders, and solid adherence by Alaskans to distancing and hygiene mandates, we have been spared the exponential growth in cases and deaths seen across the Lower 48. That, in turn, has made the reopening of Alaska’s economy and the easing of restrictions on public life a far less risky proposition.
To be sure, Alaska still has ground to cover with respect to abundant, rapid-turnaround testing that would provide more certainty with regard to the number of infected Alaskans, as well as quicker signals if cases begin to spike. And Alaska, like the rest of the world, is still waiting on quick, cheap and accurate antibody tests that will give us a far better picture of COVID-19′s spread, who has some measure of immunity and who is still at risk. But given Alaska’s small number of active cases, the decision to move forward with economic re-opening is more calculated than cavalier, and based on what we know today, it’s the right path.
Mostly, however, what will determine whether Alaska keeps its crown as the safest state during the COVID-19 pandemic is what Alaskans do now. Although new cases are few, with an average of about three cases per day statewide, that can change in a hurry if the virus is given an opportunity to spread more widely. Larger social gatherings, for instance, should be planned with an eye toward public safety and include the social distancing and hygiene standards we’ve all become so familiar with. Common sense, based on what we now know about this virus, must be the rule of the day. And now it’s up to each of us individually to assess our own levels of risk and risk tolerance, and decide for ourselves what activities and venues we will patronize.
So far, Alaskans, businesses and organizations have been responsible about how they reopen and requirements for customers, such as one-way store aisles and required face coverings. If we continue to deny the virus a chance to spread while patronizing Alaska businesses, it’s the best of both worlds, giving our economy a fighting chance without taking undue health risks. We might as well get used to this new normal, because it will likely be here for a while. Gov. Dunleavy, in announcing the lifting of restrictions on business activity Wednesday, said the goal was for the economy to be open “just like it was before the virus.” But he was careful to note that recommendations for distancing, face coverings and hygiene remain in place.
During the days and weeks to come, Alaska will lead the nation by taking a crack at achieving a delicate balance — nursing our businesses back to health, getting Alaskans back to work and keeping us all healthy. How well we succeed will be a matter of individual and collective responsibility, avoiding complacency and keeping up the same behaviors that have served us well thus far. Let’s do our state proud.