Nome stays shut down
As of Tuesday, the Dept. of Health and Social Service reported 285 confirmed COVID-19 cases and one new death, bringing the death toll to nine in Alaska. This does not include the case identified on Tuesday by Norton Sound Health Corporation. In a work session on Monday night, City Manager Glenn Steckman updated the Nome Common Council - Mark Johnson and Jennifer Reader attended in person, the rest of the council attended telephonically – on new developments. Mayor Richard Beneville is currently hospitalized in Anchorage, suffering from a bout of pneumonia.
On Monday, there were no COVID-19 cases reported in Nome, but things changed on Tuesday, when the first person tested positive.
Interim Nome Police Chief Mike Heintzelman reported a significant increase in calls for service, just last week it was 469 calls. He sees an increase in domestic violence calls and although it is only April, NPD is already investigating 32 sexual assault cases, when in all of last year there were 86 reported for the whole year.
Steckman reported that the City still requires people traveling to Nome to have travel papers filled out and permission granted by the city manager. He also reported that the State of Alaska, per mandate, requires travel permits and a mandatory 14-day quarantine for those essential workers coming to Alaska, but has not implemented a plan to actually follow up on the mandate. Steckman heard from the community of Teller and Brevig Mission, who are concerned that once the road opens up, they will not be able to keep people from going back and forth and hence putting the communities at risk. “The villages are very, very concerned of people not respecting the orders to quarantine when they come in,” said Steckman. “If it gets here, I would consider it a failure. But I assure you, everybody here [at the city] is doing everything we can to keep it out.”
Steckman said that those arriving here in Nome need the paperwork, which also indicates where they plan on spending the 14-day quarantine. Greeting every incoming Alaska Airlines passenger plane is one police officer and one EMS who check the paperwork and lay out the rules to those who show up with no paperwork. So far, 171 permits to leave Nome have been approved, 71 to come to Nome and 146 to come through Nome (from outside to Nome and on to the villages), but the city also had to deny some permits that didn’t prove essential travel.
So, how do you follow up if they do indeed self-quarantine, asked Councilwoman Reader. Steckman said that city personnel will do these health checks and if the person is not where they’re supposed to be, Nome police officers would follow up. Reader commented that this sounds like government overreach, but Steckman answered with a pained sigh that he would like to go down to the Lower 48, too, to see his wife, but now is not the time. “Those who have the memory of the 1918 pandemic, those communities, they’re asking me to stop the planes from coming,” he said. “Is it harsh? Yes, but I’ve seen the numbers and if the virus starts to spread like wildfire here, those are not pretty numbers.”
Jerald Brown wanted to know if the city is prepared to turn somebody away if they have no good reason to be here? Yes, answered Steckman. They didn’t have to put a person back on a plane yet, but if folks show up with no good reason, then they will be sent back.
Mark Johnson asked, what about the miners who want to come back to work? Steckman said that they have to submit a plan of who, how and where they quarantine themselves. “But we explained to them there is no reason to come, the harbor won’t open until June 1,” he said. Since the state has declared mining and fishing an essential business, miners and fishermen are en route to Alaska as mining and fishing seasons soon begin. Steckman said he’s been pushing against that argument that mining is an essential business. Councilman Adam Martinson and Councilwoman Reader agreed that the gold mining operations here in Nome are hardly essential to anybody but the miner.
During an update on the port, Port Director Joy Baker said that the facility is closed and won’t open until June and that port personnel tell miners that it is pointless to come to town. She reported that the port is receiving operational plans from barge companies and gravel hauling operations but there is no word yet on what the cruise ship operators are going to do.
Addressing the homeless population and the risk of them contracting the virus, Steckman said he was surprised to learn that the state forces people on probation to come to Nome because that is where their probation officer is, but the state does not provide housing for them, hence creating a worrisome situation for both those on probation and for the city and NEST. He said every attempt was made to move people back home to their villages, but it was heartbreaking to see that those on probation, including one couple and cancer patients, had to be depending on NEST and the Day Shelter at the Rec Center for a roof over their head.
At one point, it was said that Alaska Airlines would reduce their flights to three a week. However, Tim Thompson, Alaska Airlines spokesman, told the Nugget that flights are not reduced but they limited the amount of available seats to not more then 10 on Tuesday and Thursday flights. If there is an emergency, they can transport more passengers. “I should also add that we made this adjustment at the request of the city and in consultation with the hospital,” said Tim Thompson. Freight is riding in the bellies of the airplanes. Asked if Alaska Airlines informs the passengers that they need travel papers, Thompson said that the state mandates are posted on the Alaska Airlines website.