A year in: Alaskans recount the moment they knew the coronavirus would change everything

Barren shelves in a grocery store.
The soup aisle at Fred Meyer in South Anchorage is almost completely barren as people stock up on groceries during the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska announced its first coronavirus case last March.

Back then, we didn’t know much about the virus, and how much it would shape us.

We didn’t know that it would kill hundreds of Alaskans and infect tens of thousands more. 

We didn’t know it would lead to so many jobs lost, to long classroom closures, to face masks.

As we reflect on the last year, it seems everyone had a moment when the pandemic hit home — when we realized the coronavirus was not going away quickly, and would change everything.

We recently asked Alaskans to share their moment. 

Here’s what 11 people said.

(Their responses have been lightly edited and condensed.) 

Jennifer Collins, Anchorage: 

Jennifer Collins’ sons catch up with friends by video chat in March 2020 with classrooms closed because of COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Collins)

“There were a couple of times over the past year that it was very clear that the virus was not going away. The first time was that week in early March, when my son was home from school for spring break, we had family visiting, and every day the news started getting worse from around the world, and then all of a sudden in the United States. By the end of that week, my company had told us to work remotely. And by the end of the weekend, we had already booked a flight for my mom to go home because we were worried about flights getting grounded — which never happened, but it was definitely a concern of ours. That was the same time when toilet paper, meat, flour and rice were nowhere to be found at any of the stores, because people were hoarding them. And that was definitely a scary moment for my husband and I. We were worried that we wouldn’t be able to get enough food if things got really bad, and we were on a true lockdown and could barely leave the house. So that to me was the first moment when it was very real.”

Val Horner, Juneau:

“Almost to the day, when the COVID shutdowns were happening, my husband was diagnosed with brain cancer and needed surgery in Seattle. Medical travel was complicated by COVID breakouts, as were getting his treatments. And the closing of the Canadian border meant he didn’t get to go on one last Yukon camping and fishing trip before he died in January. For years we took at least one summer and a fall trip into the Yukon, and we were looking forward to what we knew would be his last summer trip. The travel restrictions might be with us forever.”

Dan Martin, Bering Sea fishing vessel captain: 

Dan Martin. (Nathaniel Herz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

“COVID became real to me in mid-March of last year when I came off a fishing trip, and my email inbox was absolutely full of links to news articles and emails from family members asking if I knew what was going on. As fishermen, we don’t always get the most up-to-date news, we can only catch snippets of it when we get into town to offload our catch. So a lot of the information that we were receiving was second- and third-hand. But with all of the school and business closures, and how rapidly this thing was spreading — while we were in sort of a bubble within our industry, and fishing out of Dutch Harbor wasn’t a bad place to be — it also became rapidly apparent that the seafood industry was not going to be immune to the long-lasting effects of the pandemic.”

Samson Ning, Anchorage: 

“I’m the president of Alaska Chinese Association. I would say shortly after the Chinese New Year here, it had started in China, and I didn’t know it was such a big deal at first. There was no mandate yet, and people didn’t feel it was a problem here, including us. But as a precaution, we just said on our website, and in our emails to our members and our people, ‘Hey, if you just came back from China, within the last couple of weeks, don’t come to our (Chinese New Year) event, please, we just want to protect the people here.’ Immediately after that, I realized, this is going to be global, this is going to be a serious problem. We tried to do our best in the community. We had two fundraising campaigns last year. And we bought masks, when masks were not available here in the United States, we bought like 20,000 masks from China. We donated 10,000 to the municipality and distributed another 10,000 to the members and friends… During the last year, some people also got very scared. In some instances, people got yelled at. The pandemic probably played a role in that. And also the political environment in the last year affected people’s mentality. I think it’s unfortunate. And I hope this thing will be over and we’ll just be able to live together again.”

Laureli Ivanoff, Unalakleet: 

Laureli Ivanoff. (Zoe Grueskin/KNOM)

“Last March, the leadership in our community was discussing a possible travel ban. It was during these discussions that we got word that the governor was probably going to issue a statewide travel ban. And I was shocked and relieved. I knew drastic measures were needed. I saw the data. We saw what was taking place in Italy. But it got very real. Our very Republican governor was considering drastic measures. So we had strange conversations with the big kids who were both attending college in Colorado. ‘Prepare yourselves to come home,’ we said. My daughter, just a freshman at the time, understandably absolutely hated the idea. But they both eventually got on the planes and traveled home. And it was all so strange. It seemed so drastic, but necessary. And unreal, yet urgent. Like everyone else, our lives were disrupted, and I’m very grateful those drastic measures were taken. As the headline stated last March: If the measures we’re taking to fight the coronavirus work, they’ll look excessive later on, but the alternative is worse.”

Lin Brent, Larsen Bay:

“I started out this last year with shingles on my right side from front to back and was isolated. That took me right into the COVID-19 pandemic era, and fear totally dominated my life. Luckily we live in a small isolated village of Larsen Bay on Kodiak Island so it was pretty secure. My husband and I are lucky, we didn’t get it. My dear friend Sherry and I made masks for all the villagers here… trying to protect and care for those we care for here. Our planned trip to Washington and points beyond last year was put on hold, for maybe even another year now. We’ve had our Pfizer COVID-19 shots and we feel blessed!”

Greer Gehler, Anchorage: 

A nurse wearing a mask, glasses, a hair net and gown stands in a hospital room.
Greer Gehler in an Anchorage emergency room. (Photo courtesy of Greer Gehler)

“I’m an emergency room nurse and COVID became real to me kind of at two different stages. The first was seeing the hospitals in Italy get overrun and seeing pictures of the doctors and nurses struggling to contain the outbreak there and watching it spread to New York City. Hearing about the first responders struggling through that crisis and the whole city shutting down, I knew it was only a matter of time before it spread everywhere else. And without Alaska shutting down its borders and entry points, it was only a matter of time. And the second point where it really drove home was working at the hospital — seeing us get ready and prepared for the outbreak to hit our doors, seeing the first patients, the really sick ones that had to be intubated and that didn’t make it. And particularly seeing the elderly folks, despite their best efforts to quarantine, getting sick from young folks visiting them and really struggling hard to keep them alive.”

Alice Stickney, Ester:

“Last year I needed to bring my dog from Fairbanks to Anchorage for a surgery on March 11. I had already been following the news from China and Europe and especially from the outbreak in Washington state. We already had suggestions to stay six-feet apart. On the trip down, I stayed one night with friends near Denali Park and was part of a birthday dinner, and then two nights in Anchorage and Girdwood with other friends, while my dog was undergoing her surgery. I shopped and was mindful of keeping distance, but wasn’t obsessive yet, and noticed that others were not either. Probably the biggest accommodation I was making then was washing my hands more often. A friend came with me on the drive back on March 12. Her brother had been obsessively following the news from Italy and was saying that the U.S. was on the same trajectory, just two weeks behind. While we were getting more gas in Healy, the news came in that Alaska had its first COVID case. Within 10 days, everything I did outside my house (besides exercise), from classes to volunteering, just evaporated. I was really grateful to have trails to get out on just outside my house, but it was so surreal to see such familiar surroundings, yet know that the world had fundamentally changed for everyone.”

Shawn Idom, Anchorage:

Shawn Idom. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

“I am the owner of Hair Science Barbershop and Barber School. And the moment that I realized that COVID-19 was something serious, and that it was just a game-changer, was when they initially did the mandatory shutdowns for non-essential businesses and mine fell into that category. I’ve been a barber for almost 20 years, and we’ve had different things happen during that time. In 2008, we had the recession. That’s when I started out my business and it was slow, but we never had a full-on shutdown, where the government was telling us that we couldn’t conduct business. So that was something that was very different. That was something that was, you know, there was no contingency plan or anything, because it just historically had never happened before that point. And then when we finally got back into the shop, and just all the different precautions that we had to take and still being shell-shocked from not being at work for six weeks. We just wanted to protect ourselves, but also protect our clients and protect the business. It was a lot to think about.”

David Walker, Holy Cross:

“I’ve lived out here for 30-plus years, and when the pandemic hit in March and April of 2020, there was a lot of fear and anxiety about what was really going to happen, how many lives it was going to take and then our travel was cut off. And the sad part was we were cut off from grandkids and loved ones that were in the city, and we’re concerned about them too. But the positive note is there’s like 100-plus people who have been vaccinated here, so we’re just praying that we’ll see some daylight in this pandemic soon.” 

Jamin Crow, Bethel: 

A student wearing a face mask, a baseball hat and a backpack stands in front of a school building.
Jamin Crow is a senior at Bethel Regional High School. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

“Bethel is kind of isolated, and you can only get in through a jet. So we were disconnected and people weren’t traveling in the spring and summer, and we didn’t have COVID here for a while. So I was able to spend all summer working and really not thinking about COVID and just making sure I was wearing a mask and staying socially distant. It didn’t really pick up until September and August. And that’s when cases started getting really bad in Bethel, and the back-to-school was canceled, cross-country was canceled. And that’s when I realized, I was like, ‘Dang, this is going to be serious. This is going to change my whole entire senior year.’ But here we are in March. Thankfully, we’re back to school and sports are back in progress, and I’m thankful that everything has turned out the way it has.”

Reach reporter Mayowa Aina at maina@alaskapublic.org and Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org.

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