Dunleavy extends shutdown of dine-in service at restaurants as COVID-19 cases climb

Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks at a news conference on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. (Office of the Governor)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration has ordered dine-in service at restaurants and bars statewide to remain shutdown indefinitely as the number of coronavirus cases in the state continues to steadily grow. 

The mandate was set to expire Wednesday evening. It also keeps theaters, gyms and fitness centers closed, as well as bowling alleys and bingo halls.

State-operated libraries, archives and museums will also remain closed until further notice, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum announced at the 5 p.m. Wednesday news conference.

By Wednesday, the number of Alaskans diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, had grown to 143 — up 10 from the day before.

New cases spread between six communities, recoveries unclear

Three of the 10 newly-diagnosed Alaskans are from Fairbanks, two are from Anchorage, two are from North Pole, one from Juneau and one from Ketchikan. Also, the first Wasilla resident was confirmed to have the disease.

Health officials were still reporting zero confirmed cases in the state’s northern and southwest regions on Wednesday, and it remained unclear how many tests had been conducted in those areas.

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said she was not aware of the location of every test in the state, but said that tests had been conducted by health aides in rural communities, including in northern and southwest Alaska.

Zink said having no known cases in small, remote towns and villages could be because of their smaller populations and because there’s less travel to those communities. But she acknowledged that the lack of positive tests could be a result of fewer total tests there overall.

“I can’t speak to every single test and where they’ve been done,” Zink said. “But there’s been numerous places, and we continue to try to encourage testing broadly across the state, because the more we can test, the more quickly we can identify cases and potentially end a cluster and be able to support local communities. So that’s a huge focus of what we’re doing.”

Related: Fairbanks is now considered Alaska’s coronavirus ‘hot spot’

The number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations had not changed by Wednesday. The state still recorded nine total Alaskans hospitalized, Dunleavy said. 

“No additional deaths, thank God,” he said. 

Three Alaskans have died after testing positive for COVID-19, two in Alaska and one out of state.

More than 5,000 COVID-19 tests have been completed in the state so far, Dunleavy said.

Zink said the state doesn’t have good data on how many Alaskans have recovered from the disease. Patients and doctors are not required to report that to the government.

“We do know, from anecdotal stories, that people have recovered,” Zink said.

Catch up on the latest news on coronavirus in Alaska.

Dunleavy said people are asking him if the coronavirus situation in Alaska will get worse. He said he and the state’s health team think the measures they’ve recommended — social distancing, staying at home as much as possible — are working.

“But any day, we could report to you a spike. A large spike. A continued spike. We hope that doesn’t happen. We’re battling every day to make sure that does not happen here in the state of Alaska,” Dunleavy said. 

“We just are looking at the models and we think that we’re going to be in for a tougher ride here in the next couple weeks,” he said. “We hope we’re wrong.”

Future of classroom closures uncertain, new virtual school launched

Dunleavy said he and his administration have not yet decided whether to keep Alaska’s schools closed to students for the remainder of the school year. He said it depends on how the coronavirus develops in Alaska over the next two weeks.

Alaska’s public and private schools are currently closed through at least May 1, with teachers delivering lessons remotely.

“The education community in Alaska is not going to let the coronavirus stop us from teaching and learning,” Education Commissioner Michael Johnson said at the news conference.

Related: Families plug in as districts flip the switch on online learning

The education department has also launched a new K-12 school: The Alaska Statewide Virtual School, Johnson said. He said the state is working with Florida’s education department “to get this one going and live quickly.” 

“The contract is for a year, it’s just over $500,000,” he said. “It includes three phases and provides dozens and dozens of courses to students that may want to take courses through this program.” 

Johnson said virtual school “is not a new concept for Alaska.” He described it as one way the state is supporting teachers, students and districts.

“Especially in communities that have had some issues with travel related to the pandemic, teachers getting back and forth to their communities,” Johnson said. 

He said the department will start hosting informational webinars about the school on Thursday. 

The department is also working with Apple to get pre-loaded iPads for early-elementary students who don’t have Internet access, Johnson said. 

Also, he said, the department will not administer statewide standardized tests this spring. It’s waiving the ACT and SAT requirement for Alaska Performance Scholarships this year.