As COVID-19 spikes on North Slope, mayor orders Utqiagvik to hunker down

An arch in Utqiaġvik made from bones of a bowhead whale. (Arctic Council Secretariat / Kseniia Iartceva)

As cases of COVID-19 spike in Alaska’s North Slope Borough, Mayor Harry Brower has issued a two-week “hunker down” order and mask mandate for the region’s hub town, Utqiaġvik.

Brower issued his emergency order Tuesday, requiring the town’s 5,000 residents to stay home except for getting or providing health care, shopping for groceries or other “critical goods,” and getting “fresh air.” There’s an exemption for religious services — whether they’re held in cars, outside, or in “properly-spaced and ventilated” indoor spaces.

Harry Brower (Photo from North Slope Borough)

In the order, Brower said he’s imposing the measures in response to “increasing numbers of COVID-19 coronavirus cases in Utqiaġvik.”

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“Please encourage each other during this trying time,” the order said.

A borough spokesman said Brower was unavailable for an interview because he was busy butchering a recently-caught bowhead whale for his constituents. But in a prepared statement, Brower said the order was mostly directed at air travelers and private businesses.

“We trust folks will do the right thing and appreciate our business partners in all of our communities. But companies like Wells Fargo, our only bank on the North Slope, must provide the same safeguards they are using in larger Alaskan communities,” Brower’s statement said, suggesting free hand sanitizer and tele-banking for elderly and vulnerable residents who lack internet. He added: “We are far away from Anchorage, but our residents are still your customers. I will do everything I can to protect our residents. God bless you all and please stay safe.”

Utqiaġvik didn’t see its first case of COVID-19 until mid-July, according to state data. But since then, it’s registered 33 cases, including 11 in the past 10 days.

The local tribal health-care provider, Arctic Slope Native Association, said that four Utqiagvik residents tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday. All of those cases came from what’s known as “community spread,” ASNA said, which means the source of their infections couldn’t be determined.

Brower’s order says that all residents must wear masks or cloth face coverings when in “communal public spaces,” and when interacting with people they don’t live with. 

Masks must be worn in “non-home settings, when unable to maintain a six-foot distance from others for any but a transient interaction.” The mask requirement also applies to taxis, cars and buses.