Amid some confusion, Anchorage is putting protocols in place that will allow businesses to open

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz updating plans on when non-essential businesses will begin opening in the municipality at a press conference on April 22, 2020 (via Facebook Live)

Anchorage will allow many businesses to re-open this coming Monday, provided they can safely adhere to social distancing and public health measures. The list of which businesses is similar to what Governor Mike Dunleavy announced Tuesday evening. However, the timelines are slightly different and that is causing some confusion.

During a community update Wednesday, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said the city is on the same page as the state, but needs a little bit more time to issue guidelines for businesses. Details about those policies will be released Friday, according to Berkowitz, adding that business owners should monitor local health orders.

“Watch very closely for the protocols we’re going to put in place. The soonest that municipal businesses will be opening is on Monday,” he said.

Dunleavy is allowing many shops, services, and salons to re-open Friday. Berkowitz says the municipality’s rule change applies to pretty much all the same types of businesses, but given the city’s role as the state’s hub for commerce, public health leaders want more time to put guidelines in place.

According to municipal officials, under the Alaska Constitution, within a home-rule entity like Anchorage, stricter local rules take precedent over looser state ones. Berkowitz said the discrepancy with the governor’s timeline does not mean there is a dispute.

“We want to do things in conjunction as much as possible. This is not the time to have a head-butting exercise between who has ultimate jurisdiction. Anchorage is a home-rule city, we have certain powers,” he said. “In this time, I think if we can reduce the amount of unnecessary legal wrangling and find ways of consensus we’re going to be in a better position.”

Still, the mayor acknowledged, news of the state policy changes created some confusion.

“The governor and I are still learning how to work well together in a seamless way,” Berkowitz said.

But just because businesses can open, does not mean they necessarily should open, according to Anchorage officials. Many of the economic sectors allowed to begin operating at a reduced capacity include highly intimate professions like tattooing, body piercing, as well as hair and nail care–occupations where employees get up close to clients.

Natasha Pineda leads the city’s health department, and said guidance on keeping socially distant is not changing under the new orders. She asked that residents maintain a cautious, “hunker down” mentality.

“We’re still asking the public to limit trips outside your home, and encourage people to stay home as much as possible. That isn’t going away,” Pineda said.

The virus hasn’t left. Though officials in Anchorage say the health trends are moving in the right direction, the risks of illness and death remain. With more movement, travel, and commerce, Pineda anticipates there will be an inevitable increase in the number of people infected and potentially hospitalized based on what’s happened in other countries and cities.

“There will be a natural uptick in those cases. What we’re working to establish is ensuring that we’re able to manage for that, and make cautionary decisions when we see things moving in a direction that are unmanageable,” she said.

The mayor’s administration has been clear they are making policy decisions based on “data, not dates.” And in the next phase of virus management, more people are likely to become ill, but within a medical system that is better set up to handle them than it was a month ago.

For some business owners in Anchorage, the messaging over the last 24 hours has been a roller-coaster.

“As soon as the governor made that announcement yesterday my phone just went wild,” said Meg Hronek, owner of Drift Salon in Anchorage.

She’s been communicating with stylists and clients about what the rule changes mean. She is relieved to be able to get back to work, but is waiting to see guidance later this week from the professional board in charge of barbers and hairdressers. For now, Hronek is lightly booking appointments, with the caveat to customers that everything is subject to change. And her salon business will look very different in order to comply with new public health realities: Fewer stations, fewer clients, no kids allowed, waiting in the car until it’s your turn in the chair. 

“It’s going to be slow and rough,” Hronek said of her expectations. She anticipates her income being half of what it was before the pandemic.

These new steps are good news for business owners in need of a little bit of revenue, and for customers who are desperate for services that have been inaccessible for weeks. But Assembly Chair and mayoral candidate Forrest Dunbar says customers need to be considerate of workers who return to their jobs. He’s received emails from employees about unsafe working conditions.

“They feel scared to speak out, they feel their employer is putting them at risk. And I think that’s something that we have to keep in this discourse, that when you open things you have to do it in a safe way, and some employers have not been responsible in that regard,” Dunbar said.

New protocols for safe operations in the municipality are expected to be published at the end of the week.

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Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska. @ZachHughesAK About Zachariah

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