NOME — Crews hoisted white vinyl banners high above Front Street in Nome on Monday morning. The signs marked the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in bold red letters.
In a normal year, the finish line of the 1,000-mile sled dog race is a focal point for a weeklong festival here. Hundreds would huddle along the barriers near the finish chute to see the winner arrive, no matter the temperature or time of day. Additionally, dozens of events peppered the city all week long, from a popular craft fair, to a competitive basketball tournament, to a chili fundraiser. Bars along Front Street filled with crowds of revelers.
This is not a normal year.
“We’re in special times right now. It’s a serious situation,” said Dave McDowell, who lives a block away from where the crowd normally gathers. “If it hits here, it’s going to hit the villages.”
Concerns about the novel coronavirus outbreak, which has sickened more than 180,000 people globally and killed more than 7,100 people, have ratcheted up dramatically since the start of the Iditarod.
It’s almost hard to imagine that just 10 days ago, thousands gathered in Anchorage to see the mushers and their dog teams off at the ceremonial beginning of the race. The world has changed with head-spinning speed since then. As dog teams crossed the wilderness, a jarred nation wiped its calendar clean of seemingly all events where people gather, in order to slow the spread of sickness. City and state officials from coast to coast have issued restrictions on the size of gatherings, restaurant operations and public spaces.
The Iditarod is now one of the few sporting events still happening in America, its leaders approaching Nome at about 6 miles per hour as of Monday afternoon.
In Nome, the party ended before it could begin. In addition to community events largely being canceled, the Iditarod has also postponed its Meet the Mushers event and its awards banquet. Both the city and the race have asked visitors to stay away.
“We are asking you to not make any nonessential travel to the Nome finish, in particular, those who are traveling from outside of Alaska,” said an Iditarod statement released Thursday.
From McDowell’s perspective a stone’s throw from the burled arch, it’s the right call. If everyone “behaves,” it can make a dramatic change in fighting COVID-19, a war in which you can’t see your enemy, he said.
“They’ve done the wise thing to shut down all these events,” McDowell said. “We’re all fighting this war together. Everybody loves the Iditarod, but this year’s different.”
Around Nome, a city of about 3,800, many agree.
At the AC grocery store, Barb Gray made a few purchases as she headed home from the airport. She regretted her trip to Anchorage to watch her grandson play basketball before she even got there Thursday, she said. She remains rattled back in her hometown.
“I’m scared,” Gray said. “A lot of people come for this Iditarod, and I’m (in favor of) shutting everything down.”
In years past, Gray said she sometimes went to Front Street to see local mushers finish the race, but not this year.
“Me? I’m going to go home and shut my door,” Gray said.
A few aisles over, Nome resident Rena Greene said she supports the mushers, but wonders why the race continues if so many peripheral events are canceled.
“If you’re going to call off some of the activities, call off all of Iditarod,” Greene said.
Before he boarded a plane from Anchorage to Nome on Sunday, Rob Urbach, the first-year CEO of the Iditarod, said the race is adjusting.
“We’re making all the necessary precautions to be as responsible as we can. We’ve moved checkpoints. We’ve brought in additional disinfectants,” Urbach said. “Everybody on the trail is happy and healthy at the moment, but obviously things can change anytime.”
Long-distance mushing typically engages the communities in its path, utilizing community buildings and benefiting from volunteers. It’s one aspect of the sport that makes it unique.
But this year, the Bering Strait School District announced it would no longer host Iditarod events. In Nulato, the checkpoint was relocated from town to a nearby cabin on the Yukon River. In Shaktoolik, residents asked the race to bypass the village, but helped create a new checkpoint from an abandoned house at their old village location.
Urbach said the race is trying to adapt to community concerns.
“I’m scared,” Gray said. “A lot of people come for this full Iditarod, and I’m (in favor of) shutting everything down.”
“We’re staying away as best we can. We’re setting up a little more isolated for everybody. We’re sticking to ourselves, for the most part,” Urbach said. “We’re not engaging with the villages as they have in the past.”
Urbach said Iditarod has not discussed calling off the race entirely. Ending the event could complicate getting people and dogs off the trail in a safe and orderly way. Instead, he’s been consulting with city officials in Nome and has reduced the number of race staff who will be on hand.
“We are the embodiment of social distancing. We launched this race before the (coronavirus) escalation. I’m not sure what that would do, shutting (the race) down,” Urbach said.
A remote city braces
Coronavirus could arrive in Nome in many ways, a visitor coming here for Iditarod being just one. Residents and visitors still come and go daily from the Nome airport. But limiting crowds, such as those that form during Iditarod week in Nome, can slow the spread of the coronavirus from an infected person, according to health officials.
Nome’s role as a hub for surrounding villages make it central to a regional response.
“The goal is to take into consideration what could happen if it started to spread out from the hub,” said Nome City Manager Glenn Steckman.
Reba Lean, public relations manager for Norton Sound Health Corp., said the now-canceled Lonnie O’Connor Iditarod Basketball Classic normally draws many people to Nome from surrounding villages.
“If they’re still coming here and they’re still participating in all the normal activities, they could encounter the virus, and bring that home, and just devastate their communities,” she said. She notes that many families live in crowded homes in a region that has a housing shortage.
Nome community members filled the City Hall room when Nome Common Council held an emergency meeting last Thursday, Steckman said, during which it closed several city facilities to the public. Overall, public response to curbing public activities has been supportive, he said.
“People are concerned about the impact on the elders, and they have their family memories of what happened in the Spanish Flu ...” Steckman said. “I repeatedly hear this, especially amongst the young people.”
A century ago, an influenza pandemic decimated the region, killing more than 700 people in the Nome census area, according to state of Alaska data.
Lean said Norton Sound Regional Hospital has made plans to reroute patients who exhibit symptoms of coronavirus infection and restrict hospital visitors. She said the hospital is prepared as they can be in a rapidly changing situation. Lean, who was born and raised in Nome, said avoiding Iditarod gatherings is key.
“Personally, I know friends that are having a real hard time. They’re struggling with not participating in what’s going on downtown …” Lean said. “It’s just really important not to do it, even though it’s so ingrained in us.”
Steckman said Iditarod representatives in Nome have been responsive to the city’s concerns, and he appreciates the cancellation of the banquet and meet-and-greet events. He hopes any visitors or residents who do go watch will heed social distancing guidelines, but he doesn’t think it’s necessary to prevent the mushers from completing their 1,000-mile journey.
“If they were feeling ill, I would tell them not to,” Steckman said. “But they’ve been out in the open, not around lots of people. So I think, let them finish the race.”
On Sunday afternoon, Jessica and Howard Farley put finishing touches on a newly remodeled apartment a couple blocks from the burled arch finish line. Jessica said she pressed her contractors to finish in time to accommodate Iditarod visitors. The space would fetch $500 per night during Iditarod.
Instead, she said she gave 100% refunds to her canceled guests.
“We don’t want to put a strain on our medical community,” Jessica said. “They’re stretched thin enough as is.”
Jessica said she has also rebuffed the requests of tourists looking for a cut-rate deal.
“I’ve had a lot of budget travel seekers who know that we may be hurting for the revenue and have reached out to see how low we’ll slash our prices,” Jessica said. “It’s not something that we’re willing to do.”
The Farleys planned to accommodate only people traveling to respond to the pandemic. But she’s concerned that visitors will show up in Nome despite the warnings.
“We actually appreciate that people not travel here at this time,” Jessica said.
Jelma Chang, manager at Airport Pizza restaurant, now wears a mask while she works. She wouldn’t be able to know which customers had ignored the travel warnings, or what states or countries they might be visiting from, she said.
“Prevention is better than cure,” Chang said.
Chang has been making an extra effort to clean surfaces and menus in the restaurant, she said. On Monday afternoon as Iditarod week began, the dining room was empty.
“It’s not going to be fun like it used to be," she said.