As Alaskans hunker down during a statewide stay-at-home order, they can still seek out fresh air — but with added precautions.
Keeping a distance from others, staying local and taking steps not to stress search-and-rescue operations are important considerations for recreation during a pandemic.
“We’re encouraging people to follow the health mandates to stay in your local communities,” said Ricky Gease, director of the state’s Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation.
In addition to the stay-home order, there’s a statewide mandate that limits travel between communities in Alaska and is meant to reduce spread of the coronavirus in the state. Both mandates are set to be reevaluated by April 21.
“It’s your local parks, whether they’re a state park or municipal park — those are the areas to comply with the health mandates that people should be focused on,” Gease said.
But if you approach a trailhead and the parking lot is full, it’s best to move on and find somewhere else to get outside. You should also bring your own sanitizers and make sure you’re packing out everything that you packed in, Gease said.
The new coronavirus, an upper respiratory illness currently responsible for a global pandemic, is spread through droplets that come out of your nose and mouth. For that reason, the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said in a video on Saturday that when you’re exerting yourself, like going on a run, you can spread the virus farther. So staying 20 feet from others, as opposed to the usual 6, is preferred during exercise.
Zink demonstrated outdoor considerations while she filmed a weekend trail run with a friend — wearing a double-layer balaclava as a face shield, driving to the trailhead separately and keeping a distance from others in the parking lot.
Gease said that minimizing your risks while outdoors is important for reducing the need for search-and-rescue operations.
“Many of the first responders are people in the medical community, and their full attention needs to be on the COVID response right now,” Gease said.
Plus, at this time of year there’s increased avalanche danger, moose are hungry and there are reports of bears emerging from hibernation, Gease said.
People should always be careful heading into the backcountry, but it’s especially important now, said Jim Mullin, a search manager with the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group.
“Alaska will throw you a curveball when you least expect it,” Mullin said. “And folks need to just be cautious out there.”
It’s important to have a plan and tell others about it. Alaska Mountain Rescue Group will still respond to search-and-rescue calls, but there’s a possibility their response could be limited, Mullin said. Search-and-rescue operations require groups gathering together, and it’s impossible to know who might show up to a mission unknowingly ill, Mullin said.
“For folks who are going out into the field, they need to recognize that they’re potentially putting searchers at risk," Mullin said.
And if someone ends up needing to be hospitalized after a rescue, they’re likely to enter an already “constrained environment,” Mullin said.
Mullin also cautioned against multiday trips involving groups of people. If someone gets into the backcountry and becomes ill, they could infect others in the group, debilitating everyone, he said.
Given added risks to searchers and potentially limited emergency response capacity, Mullin stressed the importance of being careful and taking measured risks.
“So we’d ask everybody to just recreate close to home and keep all of those folks and those considerations in mind," Mullin said.
On Thursday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said going outdoors while practicing physical distancing is allowed under the state’s mandates. He noted that outdoor recreation would likely help Alaskans cope with the significant changes to daily life during the pandemic.
“You can leave your community and go to Hatcher Pass or Portage, etc,” Dunleavy said. “What we don’t want to see happen is somebody, for example, try to get on a plane and then fly into a community, a remote community, and potentially bring the virus into a community."
Regarding enforcement, Dunleavy said he didn’t think “the state should be chasing people around and citing them" and encouraged self-policing as well as respect for one another. The governor said he thought that people were doing a good job of complying with the mandates.
Gease, with the state’s parks division, said that heading to a wilderness area or trailhead that is outside of your community but doesn’t go through another community would still comply with social distancing. However, he stressed it was important to consider others around the state, given that you could be an asymptomatic carrier of the illness and accidentally spread it.
“Alaska is so big, and there’s a lot of different variables. Use your best judgment,” Gease said. “People need to be thinking about what they’re doing and what the potential impacts are for other communities and other areas in the state.”
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