After a July marked by high transmission of COVID-19, Seward had a 15th straight day without a reported resident COVID-19 case by the state Wednesday.
In a written statement to the Clarion, Seward Mayor Christy Terry gave credit to Seward businesses, nonprofits and citizens for coming together to reduce cases.
“I really want to stress that Seward’s success with limiting COVID-19 cases is attributable to our amazing businesses and organizations taking responsible steps and leading the efforts to contain,” Terry wrote. “Additionally, Seward and outlying residents are being personally responsible for their actions.
“We want to make sure that Seward citizens are able to both be healthy and also maintain the ability to participate in society, worship as they wish and earn a livelihood.”
The COVID-19 outbreak started in Seward in late June. According to a press release from the city on July 2, Seward had 35 total positives tests at that time, with 31 of those positives having come since June 26.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Brenda Ballou, city clerk, gave credit to Seward businesses for being proactive at the start of the outbreak.
According to a June 26 city press release, seven bars and restaurants voluntarily closed their doors. By July 1, according to the city, 15 businesses had closed temporarily.
Also July 1, the Seward City Council adopted an emergency ordinance with the following coronavirus mitigation measures in place:
• city-owned campgrounds are limited to 50% capacity.
• in-person gatherings of 20 or more people are prohibited in the city. There are exceptions for those exercising constitutional rights.
• there also are exceptions to the in-person gatherings rule for eating and drinking establishments, retail stores, tours and places of worship. Indoor seating is limited to 10 people or 50% of maximum capacity, whichever is greater.
• masks covering the mouth and nose are required in all buildings open to the public when 6 feet of distance cannot be maintained between nonhousehold members. There are exceptions for those 4 and under, those with trouble breathing, those with a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, those actively eating and drinking in a public establishment, and those receiving a lawful service that can’t be performed with a mask on.
The original emergency ordinance has now been extended for an additional 30 days twice by the city council, most recently Monday. Ballou said that means the ordinance will now be in effect until Sept. 3.
Even after the actions taken by businesses and the city council, Seward had a rocky July when it came to positive COVID-19 tests.
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services uses the number of cases per 100,000 residents per day, averaged over 14 days, to determine COVID-19 alert levels. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and Alaska School Activities Association also have adopted this metric.
“These community transmission levels were developed to inform decisions about allowing visitors to long-term care facilities,” the DHSS writes on its website. “However average daily per capita incidence may inform decision making in other sectors as well, such as schools, institutions of higher education, and businesses.”
According to the district, Seward needs a total of eight cases over a 14-day period to be at high-risk level. Seward had enough cases to remain at high-risk level through July.
On July 22, the risk of operating a congregate facility in an area of high transmission came to the fore when OBI Seafoods in Seward announced 96 of the 262 employees at the plant had tested positive. According to a DHSS press release, the company had been operating a closed campus with all employees living in company housing required to stay on campus.
Some Seward residents were allowed to live off campus. Of the 96 testing positive, 11 were Seward residents living off campus. In subsequent days, 55 more employees tested positive, according to city press releases. All but Seward residents were transported to Anchorage.
As the OBI resident cases began to come off of Seward’s 14-day total, the city began to sharply turn the corner on COVID-19. By Aug. 9, the school district had Seward listed at medium-risk level. Schools in the city were able to open at low-risk level Monday, with a Seward case not being reported by the state since Aug. 11.
“Seward is so glad that our youth are able to attend in person school and play sports,” Terry wrote.
Also Monday, the Seward City Council voted 6-0 to extend the emergency coronavirus mitigation measures for another 30 days, to Sept. 3.
In speaking in support of the measures at the meeting, Terry said she normally wouldn’t support measures like these, but considers them better than the mitigation plan currently in place in Anchorage.
There, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz issued a “four-week reset,” running from Aug. 3 to 30. The reset has a number of restrictions. Those drawing the most publicity have been closing bars and nightclubs except for takeout and delivery service, closing restaurants and breweries to indoor dining, and closing bingo halls and theaters.
“I think we need to have almost the bare minimum in place so that we don’t error on the side of being overly cautious like our neighbor to the north,” Terry said at the council meeting.
On Aug. 5, Seward had 11 cases in the last 14 days to be classified at high-risk level. The more-populous central peninsula had 27 cases in the last 14 days, checking in at medium-risk level and needing to drop just two more cases to get to low-risk level.
Less than two weeks later, on Aug. 18, central peninsula jumped up to high-risk level at 63 cases in 14 days, while Seward was at medium risk with four cases in 14 days.
Terry wrote that it is clear from looking around the nation and the world that Seward could still have additional cases and flare-ups.
“I am confident if that occurs in Seward, we will remain resolute to address health and safety concerns with minimum mitigation measures, and also work with our health care community to again ramp up testing and quarantine individuals with illness and exposures,” Terry wrote.