Anchorage residents urged to stay home, reconsider travel plans as COVID-19 cases hit record highs

The Anchorage Health Department in downtown Anchorage. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

As coronavirus cases surge in Anchorage, the city health department on Wednesday issued a public health advisory urging residents to avoid gatherings, and to wear a mask and stay at least 6 feet away from others in public.

The department is also asking residents to stay home except to get food, go to work or recreate outside, and to reconsider travel plans for the upcoming holidays, to help drive down the spread of the virus before it’s too late.

“If we continue on this path, our local hospitals could soon exceed their capacity,” said Anchorage Health Department director Heather Harris. “After eight months, we recognize that some people may have let down their guard or don’t believe that COVID-19 is still a serious threat. But we are on a dangerous path.”

Read the health advisory here.

The city’s pleas for residents to adhere more strictly to precautions come as coronavirus cases rise rapidly across much of the state, and hospitalizations increase. The state health department reported 353 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, about half of them tied to Anchorage. It’s the fifth straight day the state has recorded more than 300 new infections.

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In Anchorage, the city health department says the coronavirus is “everywhere.” More cases have been identified in Anchorage since Saturday than in the entire first four months of the pandemic, Harris said.

“This is a time for all of us to be vigilant and not underestimate the virus, because what we do matters and together we can beat COVID-19 and save lives,” she said.

City officials did not issue any new emergency orders or mandatory restrictions on Wednesday. Acting Anchorage Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson said the city does not want to order residents to hunker down again, because of the brunt that has on the economy. The city is asking everyone to step up and follow the health recommendations now to avoid further restrictions, she said.

“We know the public can show up and can do what’s right,” she said.

Quinn-Davidson and Harris spoke during a news briefing broadcast on Facebook Wednesday, and were joined by representatives from local businesses and hospitals. They all asked residents to take the virus seriously.

“By following the social distancing and the mask mandates, our industry may survive. Without following these mandates, we may be facing another hunker down or possibly closure,” said Heidi Heinrich, co-owner of Lucky Wishbone. “Many of us won’t come out the other end of that.”

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Local hospital leaders also underscored the importance of wearing masks. Julie Taylor, chief executive of Alaska Regional Hospital, said a majority of the hospital’s patients with the virus “had been exposed to someone that did not have a mask, plain and simple.”

“I know that there’s naysayers out there. And honestly you guys are the problem,” she said, about people who don’t believe in wearing masks.

They said staffing at the hospitals is a main concern, as more employees are home because they have the virus or are in quarantine, and as national demand makes it harder to hire additional workers.

While Anchorage already requires people to wear masks in public, indoor spaces and outdoors when they can’t keep enough distance, Quinn-Davidson said she’d also support a statewide mask mandate as people from across Alaska come to the city for health care and other reasons.

“We know that masks protect us and that they save lives,” she said. “They protect the economy. And so absolutely, the more people wearing masks, the better.”

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.