Iditarod mushers and volunteers were swabbed at a mobile COVID-19 testing lab at the Lakefront Hotel on Thursday, meeting one of several testing requirements for this year’s race. To be eligible, mushers must be tested again Sunday prior to the race’s start at Deshka Landing in Willow and again in McGrath during the race.
Dr. Jodie Guest, an infectious diseases epidemiologist and professor at Emory University who is also a longtime Iditarod volunteer, led the Iditarod’s virus planning. Guest helped conduct testing in Anchorage on Thursday and will be on the trail during the race, she said.
“The biggest issue is to make sure that we don’t cause any spread of COVID-19 to anyone, but particularly to villages who are so vulnerable,” Guest said.
Last year, Guest was in Unalakleet as the virus crisis began to unfold nationwide. Since she returned home to Atlanta last year, she’s been considering how the 2021 Iditarod can run safely, she said. Guest examined how other sports have approached virus protocols but found that few were similar enough to long-distance mushing. She also consulted with a film studio in Atlanta, which had some comparable situations, she said.
Guest developed a plan based on the tenets of masking of participants and workers, reducing the number of volunteers on the trail and frequent testing for COVID-19.
“I do really feel like this race can be done safely,” Guest said.
Guest said she advised Iditarod officials not to hold a ceremonial start. That festive event, which normally draws crowds throughout downtown Anchorage and along trails one day before the race begins, was called off a month ago. The musher banquet, typically held on the Thursday prior to the race start, was also canceled this year. The 47 racers drew their bib numbers virtually instead.
Veteran mushers who awaited testing Thursday said the Iditarod atmosphere is noticeably different without the usual pomp.
“It’s definitely a big part of the race,” said Richie Diehl of Aniak. “We have to promote the sport if we want to keep moving forward. We gotta show the fans what it’s all about, and in that aspect, it kind of sucks. But at the same time it is super mellow not having all the pre-race buildup.”
Matthew Failor, of Willow, said he’d normally host visiting family members and kennel tours this time of year.
“It doesn’t feel like the Iditarod,” he said. “It obviously doesn’t feel the same because it’s not the same. But it’s kind of nice. It’s a lot more low key.”
Any musher who tested positive would not be permitted to start the race, according to race marshal Mark Nordman. That hadn’t happened as of midday Thursday, Guest said.
To limit contact with villages at traditional Iditarod checkpoints, the race course was also drastically changed for this year. The Iditarod normally ends in Nome, but this year mushers will race to mining ghost towns at Iditarod and Flat before returning to the place they started in Deshka Landing.
Nordman said he hopes that following the Iditarod will give people something to look forward to after a year in which many people have been limited by the pandemic.
“I think it’s just something to focus on,” he said. “It’s something exciting. It’s our state sport. And I can’t wait to get ‘em on the trail come Sunday.”