Berkowitz issues an emergency ‘hunker down’ order for Anchorage residents, effective Sunday

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz in 2018. (Alaska Public Media file photo)

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz issued the city’s most sweeping emergency order yet Friday evening in response to the coronavirus pandemic, asking residents to minimize social contact and limit movement in the city to essential errands.

Standing next to leaders from the state’s largest hospitals at a news conference, Berkowitz called the step an “emergency hunker down order.”

“What this hunker down order does is says, ‘Stay at home as much as possible,’” he said.

People should stay at home and limit their travel to things like grocery shopping, doctor appointments and pharmacy visits. But even then, take precautions.

Don’t linger,” Berkowitz said.

The order is similar to directives issued recently in other cities. The mayor stressed, though, that Alaskans may go outside if they can keep their distance from others. The order takes effect Sunday night at 10 p.m. and extends through March 31.

“If you want to go outside, and go skiing or running or walking or go with your dog, go do that,” he said. 

Take-out food orders and grocery shopping will continue as they are, with the mayor asking stores to enact social distancing measures. In practical terms, this impacts retail establishments, asking them not to remain open unnecessarily, Berkowitz said.

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“I’m asking people to use their common sense, common decency,” Berkowitz said. There were no firm enforcement measures specified during the news conference.

In a simultaneous news conference, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced an extension of school closures until May 1, as well as restrictions on businesses in Fairbanks and Ketchikan.

Slowing the virus will help keep city health care systems from becoming overwhelmed, Berkowitz said.

“We are the only game in town,” the mayor said, referring to the state’s medical capacity and the concentration of emergency and specialty services in Anchorage. The municipality has 1,200 hospital beds, and is keen to not have them be overwhelmed, he said.

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“This order is about making sure that our medical resources are well taken care of,” Berkowitz said. “Don’t become a vector.”

Dr. Michael Bernstein from Providence Alaska Medical Center said Alaska can learn from protective measures adopted by other cities, states and countries.

“It would be foolish not to take advantage of that,” he said. “It’s going to be an all-out effort.”

Should hospitals become overwhelmed with cases, he added, they will be forced to ration treatment.

“We will have to make decisions about who gets critical care,” he said.

Already, local testing in Anchorage is hampered by shortages of critical supplies. The mayor’s administration has asked businesses in the city to conserve the supply of personal protective equipment, which includes “gloves, masks, gowns, and face shields” that are “necessary to keep health care workers safe from infection.” 

On Friday afternoon, the Office of Emergency Management sent out an alert that local medical professionals are seeing a shortage of the swabs necessary to test for COVID-19.

“Due to global demand, there is no definitive shipping date for more swabs. Based on the current demand of 250-280 tests a day, Anchorage will run out of tests by Sunday,” the alert said. 

However, in response to a question on the supply of swabs, Bernstein said another inventory of swabs has been identified, and more testing options may soon become available.