State extends Alaska school closures as coronavirus count grows to 14

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy gives a press conference about the novel coronavirus in early March in Anchorage. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska’s public and private schools will remain closed to students through at least May 1, extending the prior classroom shutdown by a month in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, state officials announced on Friday.

“Students will receive instruction through distance delivery methods,” said State Health Commissioner Adam Crum at a 6 p.m. news conference. “All after-school activities will be suspended during this time.”

The school announcement came as the number of known coronavirus cases continues to grow in Alaska. By Friday evening, there were 14 confirmed cases out of about 700 tested. That’s two more people confirmed to be infected since Thursday — one in Ketchikan and one in Fairbanks.

Across the country, more and more local governments and states are restricting people’s movement to try to curb the rapidly-growing number of coronavirus cases, including orders to stay home in New York and California. In the United States, there were about 15,200 cases of COVID-19 by Friday, and 201 deaths, according to the CDC.

In Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz issued an “emergency hunker down order” that goes into effect Sunday. He’s asking residents to minimize social contact and limit movement in the city to essential errands.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has not taken similar action at a state level. At Friday’s news conference, he said most of Alaska’s known cases so far are believed to be travel-related. If the virus is spreading within Alaska communities, that could trigger more restrictive action, he said.

“The moment we see that happening, again, these tools that we have on the table, many of them will be implemented, to slow it down even further,” Dunleavy said. “We’re trying to make sure that we don’t shut the entire state down, because we believe that is also going to have some serious, serious impacts and ramifications for the state of Alaska, if that occurs.”

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The state is, however, asking Alaskans to limit their travel.

“We know that this virus is spread as people move around and, as a result, it’s really important that we have people not move around as much right now,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer.

Zink said the state is “strongly advising” that all Alaskans stop non-essential out-of-state travel, including personal, business and medical trips. She encouraged Alaskans who are out of state to return home now, and those visiting Alaska to go back to their home communities.

The travel advisory is not a mandate, and Dunleavy has not issued a “shelter in place” order as other governors have.

“We feel right now that we are employing the right tools for the moment, but it changes moment by moment,” Dunleavy said.

Also on Friday, Crum, the state health commissioner, announced new business closures for the boroughs of Fairbanks and Ketchikan. The mandate for those boroughs closes hair salons, tattoo parlors, massage therapy and other personal care services that require close contact. It’s a response to “the increasing concerns of new cases of COVID-19,” Crum said.

The mandate for the Ketchikan and Fairbanks boroughs goes into effect Saturday at 8 a.m. Personal-care providers who fail to comply with the closure orders could face action against their professional licenses, Crum said, and possibly a misdemeanor.

The order does not apply to medical services or urgent care clinics, Crum said, though it does apply to alternative healing therapies such as Rolfing, reiki, acupuncture and acupressure.

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