Some conservatives are pushing to reopen Alaska’s economy. But elected officials, doctors and economists urge caution.

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz imposed strict social distancing measures before the city had many cases of COVID-19, and he and public health experts say that those restrictions will have to be reduced gradually.

Dan Sullivan is losing patience.

The former Anchorage mayor co-owns a downtown bar, McGinley’s Pub, that was shuttered by public health mandates imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19.

As restaurants’ losses mount, Sullivan, in a Facebook post earlier this week, said he’s worried the industry has been “assassinated.” And in a follow-up interview, he said he thinks it’s time for McGinley’s to reopen, with appropriate social distancing measures and strict hygiene measures in place.

Former Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan (Brehl Garza/USARAK)

Restaurants at Alaska airports are exempt from the health mandates, and if they can safely operate, McGinley’s can, too, Sullivan said.

“Think about this: Who’s going to invest in a bar or a restaurant if every time there’s a new flu out there, you basically have to shut your doors?” Sullivan said.

Sullivan’s voice is one in a growing chorus of political conservatives at both the state and national level who are calling on policymakers to quickly relax some of the social distancing measures that have helped contain COVID-19’s spread.

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Alaska, with 300 confirmed cases, has one of the lowest rates of infection in the country.

But officials describe that status as hard-won and tenuous. At a news conference Wednesday, leaders from Anchorage hospitals pleaded with residents to keep up social distancing and other precautions, in order to maintain Alaska’s modest numbers and avoid a spike in transmission like the ones that overwhelmed health-care infrastructure in New York City and Seattle.

“We need you to continue your hunkering down so that we can keep you safe until we have both treatments and vaccinations that work,” said Dr. Keri Gardner, Alaska Regional Hospital’s chief medical officer. “Please, continue to stay socially isolated. Your health care is better if people can get sick in small numbers that the hospitals can handle.”

Public health experts say it will take months to slowly reopen Alaska’s economy without inviting serious risks. And so far both Dunleavy, a conservative Republican, and Berkowitz, a Democrat, appear to be governing accordingly.

After shutting down schools, non-essential businesses and non-essential travel around the state in the space of two weeks in March, Dunleavy issued his first order Wednesday easing those mandates — but it applies only to the provision of non-essential health-care that requires “minimal protective equipment.”

A day earlier, Berkowitz extended Anchorage’s “hunker-down” order by three weeks with only a few modifications, like easing restrictions on sewing, quilting and fabric stores and allowing shuttered businesses to bring in a second employee for maintenance and mail orders — up from the one that was allowed before.

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“Every day, we get a little bit closer to being able to maybe open some retail businesses, maybe have outdoor dining and restaurants,” Berkowitz said at a news conference Wednesday. “But we have to get there, and we have to maintain the discipline we’ve had. Because if we don’t, all of the sacrifice, all the gains we’ve made will have been for nothing — because the disease is still there.”

Epidemiologists have outlined key benchmarks for post-pandemic economic recovery: widespread testing, public health capacity to trace and contain confirmed cases and enough health-care infrastructure to care for people who are infected. But because generations can go by without a pandemic of life-threatening disease like this one, the detailed playbook for reopening the economy “is being written by everybody right now,” said Dr. Jared Baeten, vice dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington.

Policymakers’ strategies, Baeten said, should be aimed at limiting individuals’ contact with other people and opening things up in a “stepwise fashion” — rather than moving from social distancing measures straight to allowing huge concerts, for example.

Opening small businesses could be an initial step because of the one-on-one interactions that take place there, possibly followed by restaurants opening at half capacity. And as contact increases, public health officials will have to monitor infection rates.

“Each one of these steps, you have to flip the switch, hold your breath, watch what happens over weeks before you decide if it was okay and you flip the next one,” Baeten said.

That process is just beginning in Alaska, however. And in the meantime, social distancing measures are wreaking havoc on the state’s businesses, which in turn has prompted increasing pushback.

The calls to reopen Alaska’s economy are popular on social media and among some elected officials. But there does not yet appear to be a major, organized campaign led by businesses themselves.

Members of the Alaska Chamber are excited to get back to work when it’s safe to do so, and they want to be part of the conversation about how that happens, said President Kati Capozzi. The group is also adamant about the need for financial support for businesses affected by the pandemic, she said. But it’s not “actively advocating for the reopening of Alaska,” she added.

“We understand how important it’s going to be for that to be a very measured approach,” she said. “You cannot just flip a switch and turn the economy back on.”

Even among those making more aggressive calls to ease health mandates, most acknowledge the need to balance businesses’ needs with public health safeguards.

The Kenai City Council, at a meeting Wednesday, unanimously passed a resolution that “respectfully encourages” Dunleavy to revoke or change his orders closing restaurants and bars, shuttering barbers and hair salons, limiting travel and banning gatherings of more than 10 people. But Robert Peterkin, who sponsored the measure, said he still supports Dunleavy’s step-by-step approach.

“I don’t think we should just open it up, wide open,” Peterkin said. “I think we should still be cautious — this is a terrible disease and we need to open things responsibly.”

But a few political conservatives are making more pointed arguments.

Babcock’s Facebook post

Tuckerman Babcock, Dunleavy’s former chief of staff, declared the emergency “over” in a Facebook post Wednesday, saying healthy people should be free to “live, work and recreate.” State Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, said he thinks social distancing has done more harm than the virus. In Anchorage, a few dozen members of a Facebook group plan to drive their cars downtown next week to protest what they describe as “draconian lockdown measures” put in place by Berkowitz.

Shower said there are thousands of residents in his district who have lost jobs, and hundreds of closed businesses, even though the virus “has not proven to be the zombie apocalypse.” He said he thinks all businesses could be reopened at this point, as long as that happens slowly and with appropriate precautions, like social distancing and the use of masks and gloves.

Mike Shower (Skip Gray/360North)

“A doctor would shut down the economy to save 10 people. That’s what they do — it’s noble, that’s their oath,” Shower said. But now, he added, “the cure is becoming worse than the disease.”

By one measure, though, the social distancing steps taken nationally at the pandemic’s onset have saved money in the long run.

That’s according to an analysis by a group of University of Wyoming economists, who estimate that the lives saved by reducing contact between people produces a $5.2 trillion benefit, even after accounting for the economic cost of social distancing measures. (Their model assumes that each life saved is worth $10 million, which is roughly consistent with federal agency guidelines.)

Generally speaking, economists are in agreement with epidemiologists that “we are doing the right thing by being locked down,” said Kevin Berry, an economics professor at University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research.

The problem, Berry added, is that while the benefits of social distancing are spread broadly across society, the costs are being felt acutely by business owners and employees who have lost jobs. Rather than abandon health mandates, the appropriate response from policymakers is to better support those businesses and workers with low-interest loans, unemployment insurance and direct payments, said Berry, who’s studied the economics of infectious disease.

“The stimulus checks, right now, are not coming quickly enough. They’re probably not big enough. Definitely more needs to be done, and everything needs to be done fast,” Berry said. “This is a situation where it’s better to err on the side of doing too much, too quickly.”

Sullivan, the bar owner and former Anchorage mayor, wasn’t enthusiastic about turning to the government for additional support.

The $2 trillion federal coronavirus package adds to the national debt; social distancing comes with social costs, like suicide and depression, Sullivan said. And, he added, “you’re relying on a political solution.”

“Depending who’s in leadership of any level of government, there’s no guarantee that there’s going to be that kind of relief,” he said.