In this July 20, 2013 file photo, several thousand dipnetters converged onto the mouth of the Kenai River to catch a share of the late run of sockeye salmon headed into the river in Kenai, Alaska. (Peninsula Clarion file photo/Rashah McChesney)

In this July 20, 2013 file photo, several thousand dipnetters converged onto the mouth of the Kenai River to catch a share of the late run of sockeye salmon headed into the river in Kenai, Alaska. (Peninsula Clarion file photo/Rashah McChesney)

State eyes opening more of the economy

Dunleavy says retail sector is next; Crum talks commercial, sport fishing precautions

This story has been updated with the latest numbers of COVID-19 cases.

At a Friday press conference with other state officials, Gov. Mike Dunleavy hinted at a plan to continue reopening sectors of Alaska’s economy whilst dealing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Dunleavy has said state officials have been in talks with representatives from the retail and tourism industries, and said Friday that the state will announce more details about how and when the retail section of the economy will be allowed to resume its activities, as close to normal as possible.

“We’re going to have this discussion this weekend, a number of us, and we’re going to start talking on Monday and Tuesday about what advisories and what mandates we’re going to alter so we can get back into being what we once were, or as close to that as possible,” Dunleavy said.

This announcement comes as the state reported nine new COVID-19 cases on Friday and 5 new cases on Saturday bringing the total number of cases in Alaska to 314 as of Saturday at noon. There have been no new deaths and 36 cumulative hospitalizations, according to the state Department of Health and Social Services. As of Saturday, 147 Alaskans have recovered from the illness, DHSS reported on its website devoted to COVID-19 data.

On Friday a fourth Kenai resident tested positive, and on Saturday two additional Soldotna residents tested positive, bringing the total number of Kenai Peninsula residents affected by the disease to 19. Of those 19 people, one is a Homer resident who was tested and isolated in Anchorage, and one was an Anchor Point man in his 30s who died outside of Alaska.

These new cases were reported from midnight until 11:59 p.m. on April 17 and reflect data posted at noon April 18 on coronavirus-response-alaska-dhss.hub.arcgis.com.

Of the new cases announced Friday, two are male and seven are female, according to a press release from DHSS. Two are between the ages of 10 and 19; one is aged 20-29; two are aged 30-39; one is aged 40-49; one is aged 50-59; and two are aged 60-69.

Cases are reported daily by noon and reflect the actual number of cases reported within the previous 24-hour period from midnight to 11:59 p.m.

Dunleavy said the state will open different sectors and locales of Alaska as officials are able to judge the course of the novel coronavirus. He said state officials will be reevaluating the current health mandates and deciding how to alter them for the coming weeks.

“I want to make it clear: We are going to work toward getting things open in a methodical manner that you’ll all see,” Dunleavy said. “And at the same time protecting the health of Alaskans, so that we can … thread this needle and get back to a life that resembles what we once had.”

One sector of particular growing concern is the commercial fishing industry. As the start of fishing seasons approaches for places like Cordova and Bristol Bay, communities worry about the health risk an influx of fishing industry workers poses, while fishermen and processors worry about the disastrous potential effects of missing or downsizing their seasons.

After the mayor of Dillingham sent Dunleavy a letter earlier this month asking him to consider closing down the Bristol Bay fishery — the largest in the world by volume — a working group of seafood processors responded with a letter outlining steps they plan to take to ensure safety and lessen the change of the virus spreading, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

State officials have said they’re communicating with commercial fishing working groups to find solutions for a workable fishing season. Asked specifically whether the state is working with stakeholders from Cook Inlet commercial fisheries, DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum said a separate working group has been created to address those fisheries in coastal communities that are on the road system.

“There is a group that has actually been started as well that … (involves) Cook Inlet fisheries trying to figure out this ‘how are we going to deal with working with coastal communities?’” Crum said. “You know, Homer and Kasilof and Kenai where these boats launch out of to go out for some of those salmon fisheries. And so, yes that’s an ongoing concern and conversation, talking with the city managers and leadership about those groups.”

The state also announced earlier this week that sport and personal use fisheries will remain open amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Although travel between communities is prohibited under the issued health mandates, the public may still travel to fishing locations,” the Department of Fish and Game announced in a statement.

Those participating in sport and personal use fisheries “must” follow guidelines set out by Fish and Game, according to the statement, which include fishing as close to their home as possible; pack all necessary items from their hometown, rather than stopping to supplies along the way; and practice social distancing.

“One of our guidelines on that are to make sure that you’re doing this, at this point in time, with your household members. That’s one of the easiest ways to get around this,” Crum said.

Asked how confident the state is that these social distancing measures can actually be enforced at personal use fisheries — like the notoriously crowded Kenai dipnet season — Crum said there is another working group made up of guides, sport fishermen and personal use interests to tackle this concern. The group is meeting a few times a week and is working to put together recommendations for keeping sport and personal use fisheries safe.

“We’ve got members of (both our) health department team and our industry sustainability group talking with them about, what are some of the protocols that we can implement?” Crum said. “Other practices, some of these things that we could look towards to make sure that we have some sort of action down there. We’re going to do this, as the governor’s been saying, in a thoughtful, deliberate way. So I’m just encouraged by the fact that these groups and these business owners have stood up, taken the initiative to put together these meetings, and invited us to the table to talk this out with them.”

Locally, South Peninsula Hospital submitted 175 swabs for testing as of Friday morning, according to hospital Public Information Officer Derotha Ferraro. Of those, 146 tests have come back negative, and 28 are still pending.

Dunleavy acknowledged that some Alaskans are feeling frustrated by the health mandates set forth by the state and are itching to see the economy and business sectors open back up soon. Alaska cannot stay in this situation forever, he said.

“Our ability to move freely and do what we want, Alaska, has … it’s taken a hit, in an effort to try and contain this virus.” Dunleavy said.

Dunleavy emphasized that if Alaskans continue to maintain aspects of the current social distancing, the state will be able to keep infection numbers down and restart sectors of society.

“We probably won’t be shaking hands like we once did,” Dunleavy said. “We probably won’t be gathering in tightly packed crowds like we once did. Because, you know, in the end, people are going to do what they want to do, but the best health advice right now is to avoid some of those situations to keep yourself well, but also to keep your neighbor well.”

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

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