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Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz on Friday issued an emergency “hunker down” order for residents, effective 10 p.m. Sunday until March 31, to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.
Under the order, residents must “stay at home … as much as possible,” Berkowitz said in a televised briefing Friday evening.
“We’re going to do everything we can in the municipality to flatten the curve,” Berkowitz said.
The order is largely focused on limiting person-to-person contact and the closure of businesses deemed not essential, including much of the retail sector and food service.
“This is a call for people of Anchorage to minimize their social contacts — not to be isolated, in that sense — but to minimize the actual physical contacts,” Berkowitz said.
Public health officials have repeatedly said that social distancing, which involves limiting public activity and avoiding close contact with other people, is one of the most effective ways to limit the spread of an outbreak and keep health care facilities from being overwhelmed.
As of Friday evening, Alaska had 14 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including four confirmed cases in Anchorage, six in Fairbanks, three in Ketchikan and one in Seward. Most were travel-related.
Berkowitz said the order will not affect grocery stores and restaurants currently offering takeout and delivery service. He emphasized that the city was working to ensure continuous power, waste and other critical services for residents.
Critical components of industry, from health care to government and media to plumbers and construction workers, are encouraged to stay in business. The order also specifically names marijuana dispensaries as exempt.
Berkowitz said he hopes businesses and people see this order and comply on their own as a way to save lives.
The order will not impact outdoor recreation, such as walking dogs, running or skiing.
Berkowitz said the virus is coming for Anchorage and Alaska as it did Seattle and Italy, which is now the global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. Public health officials believe that COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, will start to be community-spread in Alaska soon. It’s going to get very personal, Berkowitz said.
“If we can’t take care of ourselves, there’s nobody else coming because everyone else is is contending with this pandemic at the same time,” he said.
Once the order takes effect, Anchorage residents will join more than 70 million Americans — including all residents of California, New York and Illinois — under stay-at-home orders. There are more than 17,000 confirmed cases in the U.S., with 231 deaths related to COVID-19.
“What we’re trying to do is just save lives,” Berkowitz said.
When asked about enforcement, Berkowitz said that while the city does have tools for enforcement, he was asking residents to “use their common sense and common decency … to protect not just themselves,” but also others.
At any point, the Assembly can call an emergency meeting and undo an emergency order with a simple majority vote.
He described the order — which he said is broader in scope than previous measures taken in Anchorage — as “a call for the people of Anchorage to minimize their social contacts.”
Berkowitz said the city’s response to the pandemic is evolving and is informed by decisions other governments are making, often in areas with more cases than Anchorage.
“We will never know if we’ve done too much, or we acted too soon, but we will definitely know if we acted too late and did too little,” he said.
Berkowitz said this measure, like the Monday suspension of dine-in service at bars and restaurants, will have an economic hit. People will lose jobs. He said the city will address economic hardship once the virus is under control, but for now the focus is on public health.
“We’re going to do everything we can for people who are suffering economic trouble as a consequence,” Berkowitz said. But for now, “use your common sense, do the right things and make sure that you don’t become a vector, you don’t become a point of contact that affects other people.”
Berkowitz was joined by officials from Providence Health & Services Alaska, Alaska Native Medical Center and Alaska Regional Hospital.
“This is a bold, courageous move, but absolutely necessary,” said Michael Bernstein, chief medical officer for Providence.
Bernstein said the impact of not acting quickly enough is easy to see; it’s happening in Italy right now, he said.
“We can literally wipe out a portion of our population, without taking measures such as this,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein said there is a shortage of medical supplies, but hospitals are working to find more swabs to take samples of patients to be tested, and more medical clothing to protect health care workers attending to infected people. Anchorage said that by Sunday, the city could run out of swabs that health care workers need to test for COVID-19.
They’re receiving donations of masks and other equipment, and learning new ways to conserve equipment or reuse equipment, like masks that have been sterilized.
“It reminds me of the stories when I was little I used to hear about everybody going to work in various ways for World War II,” Bernstein said. “It’s an all-out effort.”