2020: The Year in Review
Army Corps holds public comment on port expansion
On January 1, 2020, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened a public comment period on the proposed upgrades for the Port of Nome. People had 30 days to submit comments on the proposal for the estimated $491,126,200 expansion project and corresponding environmental assessment. The plan calls for extending the existing 1,200-foot causeway to 3,484 feet to and deepening the basin to 40-feet Mean Low Water Depth. This would allow vessels over 18 feet to enter the port. The existing east breakwater would be removed and replaced with a new causeway aligned with F Street. Three docks, two 450-feet and one 650-feet, would be built. The environmental assessment addresses the impact of the project on marine resources, including crab and marine mammals.
Nome man charged with strangling girlfriend
Tyler Shold, a 27-year-old Nome man, was arrested on charges of first degree murder on January 8. Shold had allegedly strangled his girlfriend, 24-year-old Anna Matoomealook. According to court documents, Nome Police responded to a call just before 2 a.m. from Shold himself, who asked for help for his girlfriend. Upon entering the residence, officers found Shold leaning over an unresponsive Matoomealook. EMTs decided to transport Matoomealook to Norton Sound Regional Hospital, but found that she did not have a pulse. Attempts to save her were unsuccessful. Shold was held in Anvil Mountain Correctional Center, with bail set at $100,000.
Pete Kaiser wins his 5th K300
Bethel’s Pete Kaiser, multiple time Kuskokwim 300 Champion and 2019 Iditarod Champion, won his hometown race in 2020. To reclaim his K300 title, Kaiser beat 2019 K300 champion Matt Failor by 47 minutes. Kaiser completed the race, which runs from Bethel to Aniak and back, in 38 hours, 16 minutes and 44 seconds. The 2020 field included 21 mushers, including four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey and Nome-grown Aaron Burneister. After Kaiser and Failor, third place went to Richie Diehl of Aniak, fourth went to four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King, and fifth place went to 2018 Iditarod Champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom.
Board of Game meets in Nome to regulate use of wildlife resources
The Board of Game held a meeting in Nome to discuss proposals for the Arctic/Western Region. Members of the public and agencies submitted a total of 43 proposals, asking the Board to adjust current regulations based on changing abundance of game, hunting opportunities and biological research. The Board unanimously voted down a proposal to extend the open caribou hunting area east of and including the Nukluk River Drainage, where one bull could be taken between August 1 and September 30. Charlie Lean put forward a proposal asking that musk ox be added to the list of species that may be taken under a proxy permit in GMU 22. The Board decided to refer Lean’s proposal to a statewide meeting. The Board also unanimously turned down a proposal that would allow hunters to be able to “position” brown bears with snow machines.
Nome begins early planning to counter the coronavirus pandemic
In late January, Nome began to plan for the potential arrival of the coronavirus, a novel virus that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. The virus was of particular concern for Alaska, as planes traveling from China to the United States often stop in the Anchorage Airport to refuel. According to the Nome Local Emergency Planning Commission Chair Tom Vaden, the Nome LEPC was closely monitoring the spread of the virus and taking initial steps to plan for its arrival. Norton Sound Regional Hospital coordinated with the State of Alaska and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct training and drills. The preparation included screening individuals who had recently traveled or who had recently been in contact with an individual infected with the virus.
School Board approves move of sixth grade to junior high
The Nome School Board approved the adoption of the sixth through eighth grade middle school model for the 2020-2021 school year. The junior high school, located at Nome-Beltz High School, previously included only seventh and eighth grades. With the approval, however, students in sixth grade, along with one teacher, moved from the elementary school to junior high school. The board voted unanimously for the move, which was undertaken in order to address the more mature nature of students and to better prepare them both academically and socially for high school. NBHS Principal Jay Thomas explained that kids today are growing up faster than in the past. As a result, sixth graders are closer to seventh and eighth graders in maturity level than they are to students in fourth and fifth grades.
Nome Mayor Richard Beneville suffers stroke
Nome Mayor Richard Beneville suffered a mild stroke on Sunday, January 19, shortly before his 75th birthday. Beneville had been at home in Nome when the stroke occurred. Upon waking up from a nap, Beneville could not move his right arm. He quickly went to Norton Sound Regional Hospital, where doctors determined that he needed to go to Anchorage. Beneville received further tests and treatment at Providence Medical Center, including physical therapy in order to regain use of his right arm. Doctors in Anchorage gave Beneville an “excellent” prognosis, and he assured Nomeites that he was doing well.
NSEDC forgoes buying red king crab in 2020
The Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation’s Board of Directors voted against buying red king crab for both the winter and summer seasons of 2020. The board also urged the Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife to close the fishery in order to protect the crab population from further decline. During the meeting, biologists testified that they had found a high percentage of females with partial egg clusters or none at all, which suggests a reproductive failure due to a lack of mature males. Trawl surveys found few legal size crab and evidence suggests that there are few male king crab, which impacts reproduction. While it negatively impacted fishermen, NSEDC voted not to buy crab in order to protect the future population.
White Mountain trio rescued from overflow
Three individuals traveling from White Mountain to Golovin were rescued on February 10 after becoming trapped in overflow. Joseph Fagundes, 29, Stephanie Fahey, 27, and Adrian Barr Jr., 23 were snowmachining to Golovin to pick up a friend for a basketball tournament. They ventured out on ice covered with overflow and broke through the ice. Their machines were trapped in slushy overflow 200 to 300 feet from land. Temperatures were as low as -30°F when White Mountain Search and Rescue responded to the call. Rescuers tried to use a boat to bring the three ashore, but the slush was too thick and so they had to return to the village to get a canoe. Ultimately, however, all three were rescued and returned safely to White Mountain.
Warrant out for Nome man charged with sex abuse of a minor
In connection to an ongoing investigation into sexual abuse of a minor, the Nome Police Department issued a warrant for the arrest of Jake Wagner, 55, of Nome. Wagner, accused of sexually abusing his foster daughter, was charged with two counts of Sexual Abuse of a minor in the first degree and one count of Misconduct of a Controlled Substance in the third degree. The victim disclosed via text message that she and the defendant had had a sexual relationship the summer before, and that Wagner had provided her with alcohol and marijuana. Both Wagner and his wife were employed by Nome Public Schools as educators and behavioral counselors at Nome-Beltz High School and Nome Elementary School. Wagner’s wife said that, after confronting her husband, he denied the charges and subsequently fled Nome. Wagner eventually turned himself in to NPD on March 27.
Search for Nome Police Chief progresses
Nome was without a police chief for several months, as the City searched for a replacement. The City of Nome put out two rounds of calls applications to fill the position. The first round yielded only two results, while the second produced ten. Of the ten candidates, five semi-finalists were interviewed. For the first time, the Public Safety Advisory Commission, a newly-formed nine-member group of residents, was part of the selection process. During the interviews, the six members of the Commission who were present took turns asking questions from a prepared list of 18 questions. The former Chief of Police, Robert Estes, departed the job in early November 2019, after serving for only a year.
ACLU sues City of Nome, former Nome Police Department Chief and Lieutenant
The Alaska Civil Liberties Union filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of Clarice Leota “Bun” Hardy in late February. Co-defendants in the suit were the City of Nome, former Nome Police Chief John Papasodora and Lieutenant Nicholas Harvey. The lawsuit details the Nome Police Department’s failure to investigate the alleged rape of Hardy in 2017. According to the suit, Hardy, who worked as a dispatcher for NPD, was sexually assaulted in her home. She reported the crime to Harvey and later to Papasodora, but no investigation was done, no charges filed and no suspect developed or held accountable, according to the court papers. The failure to report, the suit claims, is symptomatic of a systemic bias against Alaska Native women. Plaintiffs claimed that the Nome Police Department has failed to investigate hundreds of sexual assaults reported over the years. The lawsuit asked for awards for compensatory damages and punitive damages as well as an injunction against the City to cease all discriminatory practices.
Nome Musher hit by snowmachine
Kirsten Bey, a Nome musher participating in a Serum Run Expedition from Nenana to Nome, was hit by a snowmachiner about five miles outside of the interior village of Galena. Around 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 1, Bey was traveling with her dog team toward Galena when a snowmachiner going in the same direction came from behind and collided with Bey. A snowmachine escort traveling with the expedition arrived on the scene shortly after and alerted the Galena Search and Rescue. Bey, 64, was conscious and alert at the time help arrived. She was transported to Galena and then medivaced to Fairbanks Medical Hospital, where she was treated for significant injuries that included a broken leg.
Man charged with rape, assault of infant
On February 25, Alaska State Troopers arrested 23-year-old Billy Jackson of Savoonga, who was accused of raping a seven- month-old baby girl. Jackson was charged with sexual abuse of a minor in the first degree and assault in the third degree. According to court documents, Troopers received a report in mid-February from the Savoonga clinic of an infant being treated for injuries including non-accidental bruising, bite wounds and injuries highly consistent with sexual assault. The documents state that the baby’s mother left the infant in the care of her elderly father and Jackson, who she identified as her boyfriend. She returned to find the baby injured with multiple bruises and bite marks. The infant was taken first to the Savoonga clinic and later medivaced to Nome, where a nurse confirmed that the injuries were consistent with sexual abuse.
Iditarod XLVIII underway
Fifty-seven dog mushers and their teams hit the trail for the 48th running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Mushers left from Willow to begin the roughly 1,000-mile journey to Nome. The Iditarod had new leadership this year, as Rob Urbach, former CEO of USA Triathlon, took over from long standing CEO Stan Hooley. The 2020 field included numerous international mushers as well as several former champions, including 2018 winner Joar Leifseth Ulsom, defending champion Pete Kaiser, Lance Mackey and others. Nome mushers Aaron Burmeister and Nils Hahn also participated in the race.
Norwegian Thomas Waerner wins 2020 Iditarod
Norwegian musher Thomas Waerner was first to cross under the burled arch, winning Iditarod 48. Waerner finished the race in nine days, 10 hours, 37 minutes and 47 seconds, arriving in Nome on early Wednesday morning. Unlike past years where mobs of spectators inundated Front Street, due to COVID-19 precautions the crowd was diminished to only a few spectators. Waerner took the lead in Kaltag and managed to hold on. He first ran the Iditarod in 2015, where he finished 17th and took home rookie of the year. Due to international travel complications related to the COVID pandemic, Waerner and his dog team could not leave Alaska until late May when they hitched a ride in an antique Everts airplane that was sold to a Norwegian museum and flown from Fairbanks to Norway.
Nome Common Council passes emergency COVID-19 ordinance
In an emergency meeting in Old St. Joe’s the Nome Common Council approved an emergency ordinance to address the COVID-19 pandemic. The order gave City Manager Glenn Steckman the authority to take necessary steps to quickly reduce the impact and spread of the virus throughout Nome. The order allowed Steckman to use all city resources as reasonably necessary, to close or regulate public accommodations (including hotels and bed and breakfasts) and the ability to control travel to and from Nome. The Council in an earlier meeting cancelled the Lonnie O’Connor Basketball tournament and closed facilities such as the Rec Center and the Richard Foster Building. Iditarod events, including the Arts and Crafts Show and banquets, were cancelled as well. The Iditarod was allowed to proceed, but teams and mushers were quickly flown out of Nome after their arrival in Nome.
Alaska shuts down
In response to rising COVID-19 case numbers in Alaska, Nome City Manager Glenn Steckman and Mayor Richard Beneville announced a series of emergency orders to keep the disease out of Nome. Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy enacted travel restrictions that also included traveling to Nome. Entrance to the community was limited to critical infrastructures and people who received travel permits approved by the City Manager. Due to the decrease in travel, Alaska Airlines reduced flights to Nome to once a day. A second order, in effect until April 14, stated that individuals may not enter a grocery store more than one time per day. The last order limited the hours of alcohol and marijuana retail establishments.
Three bikers complete Iditarod Trail Invitational
Three cyclists, the only finishers of the 2020 Iditarod Trail Invitational, arrived in Nome in tandem on March 23. The trio took 22 days and seven hours to complete the journey, which begins at the Kink Lake trailhead and follows the Iditarod trail route. The group included defending champion Petr Ineman, Casey Fagerquist and Jill Martindale. Snow conditions slowed the bikers; even with fat tires, the group had to push their bikes through soft and deep snow much of the way to Nome. Rather than having a winner, the group decided to finish the 1,000 mile journey together.
Nome Public Schools transition to distance learning
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nome Public Schools did not reopen their doors after spring break. Teachers and administrators all grappled with how to best provide education to Nome students given social distancing mandates. Ultimately, students transitioned to distanced learning, which learning took place through paper packets distributed to doorsteps. The high school delivered some material through the online platform Google Classroom, but bandwidth limitations prevent universal online learning.
First COVID-19 case confirmed in region
After keeping the virus at bay for weeks, the Norton Sound region saw its first case of COVID-19 on April 14. Norton Sound Health Corporation declined to say whether the patient was a resident of Nome or of a regional community. The individual decided to get tested after displaying symptoms and self-isolated after receiving the positive test result. In light of the region’s first case, NSHC opened testing up to individuals who were displaying only one COVID-19 symptom rather than multiple.
Domestic violence crimes spike during COVID-19 pandemic
The Nome Police Department reported that the number of domestic violence calls increased substantially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. NPD reported an increase of 25 percent in domestic violence calls. But calls were up in general as well; in one week NPD received 500 calls, 120 percent higher than the week shortly before the pandemic. The increase in reports of domestic violence was attributed to the fact that more people were staying home due to COVID-19 measures. The statistics from NPD highlighted one impact of the pandemic on mental health.
Mike Heintzelman is the new Nome Chief of Police
The City of Nome’s several month search for the next Chief of Police concluded in late April, when acting Chief Mike Heintzelman was picked for the job. From Chesterfield County, Virginia, Heintzelman was originally brought to Nome to serve as a private investigator. He officially joined NPD in September 2019 as a Deputy Chief of Police. Heintzelman has over 30 years of experience with a Virginia police department. Heintzelman replaces Robert Estes, who stepped down in November 2019.
Nome Mayor Richard Beneville dies at 75
On May 11, Mayor Richard Beneville died in Nome at the age of 75. Two weeks before his death, Beneville had been hospitalized for pneumonia in Anchorage, but recovered and returned to Nome. He was readmitted to Norton Sound Regional Hospital, where he died. Beneville was first elected mayor in 2015, and died while serving his third term. Beneville previously worked at Nome Public Schools and later as a tour guide, forming the company Nome Discovery Tours. He sold Nome Discovery Tours in 2018 to focus on his duties as mayor.
Volunteers fix Nome Kennel Club’s Topkok shelter cabin
The Nome Kennel Club’s Topkok shelter cabin recently received renovations and upgrades. Three Nomeites volunteered to fix up the cabin, which involved leveling it, building a deck, and renovating the interior. The Nome Kennel Club, the entity that maintains the cabin, received funding from the Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance for the work. The cabin is located on the Iditarod Trail about 44 miles east of Nome, near the notorious coastal blowhole. It is utilized primarily in winter months by mushers as well as snowmachiners traveling between Nome, Golovin and White Mountain.
Business owners push back against travel restrictions
Tensions flared in a Nome Common Council meeting, as business owners protested travel restrictions. In order to keep COVID-19 case numbers low in Nome, the City began monitoring travel into town. Mandates included that individuals traveling to Nome fill out a form and receive approval from the city manager. Also in place was a mandatory two-week quarantine period after travel. However, as the summer tourism season approached, business owners were concerned about the economic ramifications of limiting the number of people who visit Nome. The pandemic hit those in the hospitality business particularly hard; many depend upon the influx of visitors during Iditarod and the summer months.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NBHS graduation ceremonies could not take place as usual in 2020. Still, Nome found a way to celebrate its graduates with a parade and a socially distant outdoor ceremony in the Nome-Beltz parking lot. Graduates and their families drove cars and waved from the back of trucks as they rode through town. The parade began at the Rec Center, snaked through downtown Nome, went down the Nome-Teller Highway through the Icy View subdivision and ultimately ended at Nome-Beltz. Graduates were able to walk across a stage, but grabbed their diplomas from the end of a fishing pole. The celebration honored 34 Nome-Beltz and Extensions Homeschool seniors, six Mount Edgecumbe High School graduates and one Galena Interior Learning Academy student.
Two NSHC employees test positive for COVID-19 in Nome
After more than a month without any cases, Nome saw its second and third cases of COVID-19 in late May. Two Nome-based employees of Norton Sound Health Corporation tested positive for the virus. Both cases were caught through routine employee testing, which NSHC implemented in late April. One individual tested positive on May 21 and the other on May 22. In response to the cases, NSHC shut down all Nome facilities for a four-day cleaning and testing of staff. Nome’s first known case was identified on April 14.
Nome Common Council extends emergency ordinance, Alaska businesses reopen
On May 15, the Nome Common Council voted to extend the local emergency authorization order. The ordinance gives City Manager Glenn Steckman power to take necessary measures to respond quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic. After public outcry claiming ‘overreach,’ the Council specified that the Council still directs the city manager to take the measures and can override Steckman’s actions at any time. The same week, Governor Mike Dunleavy announced that all Alaska businesses can fully reopen. Intrastate travel restrictions are still in place, including a mandatory two-week quarantine after leaving the state.
Nome businesses reopen after pandemic shut-down
The COVID-19 pandemic created not only a public health crisis, but an economic crisis as well. After all non-essential establishments were forced to shut their doors at the beginning of the pandemic, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy proclaimed that all businesses may open on May 22. By early June, most establishments were gradually beginning to reopen, at least at limited capacity. Nome businesses have been slow to open up compared to the rest of Alaska, according to City Manager Glenn Steckman. The concern, Steckman said, is of overwhelming the region’s limited healthcare capacities. However, even with COVID-19 relief programs, Nome businesses were suffering from the forced closure.
U.S. Army Corps sign off on Port of Nome Expansion
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the Port of Nome modification feasibility study. According to the City of Nome, the signing was the last step in a lengthy Corps approval process, which began over ten years ago when the port project was first conceptualized by the City. Should the project come to fruition, the plan would make Nome the first refueling and resupply port in the U.S. for deep-draft vessels. The port expansion is estimated to cost $491 billion, which will be divided between the City of Nome and the Federal government. After being signed by the Corps, the project goes on to Congress for authorization and funding.
Nome man arrested for sexual abuse of minors, kidnapping
An investigation into several reports of sexual abuse of minors by different victims led to the arrest of a 61 year old Nome man. On May 26, the Nome Police Department arrested Zenon Habros. Habros was charged with one count of sexual abuse of a minor in the first degree, two counts of sexual abuse of a minor in the second degree, one count of kidnapping and one count of assault in the fourth degree. The charges span a period of ten years, with the most recent incident occurring on May 26, 2020. A seven-year-old disclosed that Habros approached her on the Old St. Joe’s playground, grabbed her and pulled her into his car. In January, a 16-year-old disclosed that Habros on several occasions performed sexual acts on her when she was between the ages of 10 and 12. In an incident dating back to 2010, a victim reported that Habros had touched her inappropriately when she was 11. Habros later died at AMCC, while in custody.
John Handeland appointed as interim mayor
The Nome Common Council selected John Handeland as Interim Mayor, filling the position which was vacant after the death of former Mayor Richard Beneville in May. Five individuals submitted letters of interest for the position. The Council unanimously voted for Handeland, citing his deep knowledge of the town. A lifelong Nomeite, Handeland had previously served as mayor of Nome and is employed by the City as General Manager of Nome Joint Utility System. Beneville’s term would have been up in 2021, but per the ordinance, an interim mayor is appointed by the Council to serve until the next municipal election. According to Handeland, this is the first time in Nome’s history that an interim mayor has been appointed.
Nome man dies from stabbing
In the early hours of June 18, Nome Police responded to a fatal stabbing. Police arrived at a residence on the East end of town to find the victim, 37-year-old Benjamin Milton, bleeding from multiple stab wounds. Milton, who was a Nome resident, was taken to Norton Sound Regional Hospital, where he later died from his injuries. No arrests have been made in connection to the crime.
Nome holds Black Lives Matter demonstration
In support of the nationwide movement, Nome held a Black Lives Matter demonstration on June 10. Over 150 Nomeites gathered for the march to protest systemic problems of police brutality and the unequal treatment of people of color by police departments. Nome marchers gathered at City Hall and walked enmasse to the Nome Police Department building, located on Greg Kruschek Avenue. Some attendees, primarily Alaska Native women, spoke about parallels between the movement and the treatment of Indigenous women by the Nome Police Department. The movement was sparked by the violent death of George Floyd, brought on when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck after being arrested for allegedly having forged a check.
11 COVID cases: 3 in Nome, 3 in Teller, 4 in unidentified villages and 1 resident outside the region
Nome Common Council votes to distribute first tranche of COVID grants
The federal CARES Act aimed to provide financial relief for individuals, businesses and governments struggling with the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. The state of Alaska allocated almost $5.68 trillion to the City of Nome in three installments, or tranches, the first of which was $2.74 million. In a special meeting at the beginning of July, the Nome Common Council voted to distribute its first and largest tranche partially to upgrade city infrastructure, and partially to relieve financial pressure on individuals and businesses. It decided to quickly get the money out to Nome residents through a blanket Nome Joint Utilities System utility credit, that any resident of Nome or business based in the city affected by COVID could apply for.
Nome Court moves
After delays in setting up the old Nome hospital to house the U.S. District Court at Nome, the court temporarily moved to Our Savior’s Lutheran Church on Bering St. The court had been planning to move since before its lease at 112 Front St., which also houses the Post Office, expired in February. The landlord of the Front St. building did not offer a competitive bid, and so the court decided to move to the old hospital. The lack of in-person court business due to the pandemic added additional challenges, but also allowed the temporary move to the church to be more doable.
Reports of dead seabirds raise concerns of another die-off
The summer saw an alarming increase in the number of dead seabirds, of a number of species, washing up on beaches around the Bering Strait/Norton Sound region. While scientists were not sure why the birds were dying so suddenly, most dead birds appeared to have starved to death, leading some to believe that the die-off was the result of changing food resources or possibly toxic algae, both of which are changes driven by climate change. The die-off was the latest in a series of unusual mortality events among seabirds and marine mammals in the region, leading some to worry that climate change may bring permanent changes to the marine ecosystem that could be devastating for subsistence hunters.
Nome celebrates a subdued Fourth of July
The COVID-19 pandemic altered Fourth of July celebrations all across the country, and Nome was no exception. Many of the traditional Nome events remained intact, including the parade down Front St., some of the street games, and free ice cream at the fire station. But the crowds were notably smaller, some people wore masks and attempted to stay six feet apart from each other, and the entire event was much shorter than it usually is.
Nome duo runs for a cause from Teller to Nome
Carol Seppilu and Tim Lemaire completed a 72-mile run along the Nome-Teller road, a grueling journey that took a total of 19 consecutive hours. Seppilu championed the run, one in a set of three, as a way to raise awareness of the issue of suicide in the region, having struggled with depression and suicide since she was a teenager. Later in the summer, she would complete two more epic runs, from the ends of the Kougarok and Council roads to Nome.
Water and sewer deficiencies make regional villages more vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19
With the threat of COVID-19 looming, many villages in the region struggled to provide the basic sanitation infrastructure necessary to stave off the spread of the virus. In some villages, no water delivery or sewer infrastructure exists at all, meaning that residents must travel to a communal washeteria for fresh water and go to the bathroom in honey buckets. The dire sanitation infrastructure makes it impossible to regularly wash hands and stay inside, both important to stem the spread of COVID-19. These issues had always been pressing in many regional villages, but the arrival of the pandemic highlighted them even more.
22 COVID cases: 9 in Nome, 3 in Diomede, 2 in Unalakleet, 1 in Stebbins, 1 in White Mountain, 1 in Savoonga, 1 in Gambell, 1 in an unidentified village and 1 resident outside the region.
Rural housing crises intensified by COVID-19 pandemic
A major, ongoing problem in rural Alaska has always been a lack of adequate housing, and the COVID-19 pandemic made that issue all the more dire. The Nome Census Area has been identified as one of the most overcrowded regions of the country, with many village residents crammed into tiny, dilapidated houses with inadequate ventilation. This situation made it even harder for villages to deal with the rapidly spreading virus, since people were forced to live alongside infected family members and many villages lacked adequate quarantine and isolation housing. The housing crisis is just one of many systemic issues in rural Alaska that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Council releases second tranche of COVID funds
Following the relatively smooth rollout of the first round of COVID-19 economic relief, the Nome Common Council met again in a special meeting to disburse the second round of funds. They decided to focus this tranche on businesses and individuals impacted by the pandemic, and debated between offering flat rates to businesses based on last year’s earnings, and a more detailed method of assessing businesses’ losses due to the pandemic and compensating them accordingly. The Council eventually decided to go with the first option, offering grants to businesses regardless of the degree to which they were impacted by the pandemic, deciding that the latter method would be too complicated, take too long, and leave many businesses high and dry when they needed funds the most.
Businesses grapple with decreased revenue and uncertain future
Over 90 percent of businesses in the Bering Strait/Norton Sound region reported some sort of disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an Economic Impact Survey conducted by Kawerak Inc. While the City of Nome offered some economic relief, and would continue to offer relief programs throughout the year, for many business owners those funds simply weren’t enough. Businesses in the service industry like hotels, restaurants, bars, shops, and the tourism industry reported especially heavy losses with the lack of Iditarod visitors and summer cruise ships. While some small business owners said they could tighten the belt and stay afloat, others worried that the pandemic would spell the death of their businesses.
City reviews Nome police action in arrest at bar break
Nome police use pepper spray and two taser shots in an arrest for disorderly conduct in front of the BOT one early Sunday morning, an action that was widely publicized and criticized on social media. The man, Milan Schield, was being arrested after loudly interfering when police were speaking with another intoxicated individual, but resisted arrest, leading the police to use force. Many community members, including many eyewitnesses, were outraged, claiming the police’s use of force was excessive. The event occurred in the wake of widespread national protests against police violence on people of color, which were in response to multiple police killings of Black people in the Lower 48.
Voting in a pandemic: Alaska holds primary elections
Alaska held its primary elections in August, but the year’s first round of voting looked very different from normal years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. the Alaska Division of Elections issued more than six times as many absentee ballots, which are available to all Alaskans, than it did in 2016, since so many voters were uncomfortable gathering at the polls for fear of infection. Even with the record number of absentee ballots, though, more people voted in person both in Nome and throughout the region than ever before, forecasting the record turnout numbers that would go on to characterize the national elections of the fall.
Foreign plastic continues to wash up on region’s beaches
A surge of plastic trash, much of it with Russian and Korean writing, and appearing to be foreign in origin, washed up on beaches throughout the Bering Strait/Norton Sound region in August, baffling scientists and regulators and alarming local residents. The debris, which consisted of a wide range of objects from plastic bottles and aerosol cans to fruits, vegetables, and mysterious white oil, appeared to be the result of a single large release of trash from a ship on the Russian side of the Bering Sea, and was killing both seabirds and marine mammals. The Coast Guard and NOAA’s Marine Debris Program attempted to use currents and wind patterns trace the debris to its origin, but could not identify the exact source or make contact with Russian regulators to prevent further dumping events.
22 COVID cases: 3 in Nome, 6 in Gambell, 4 in Stebbins, 2 in Unalakleet, 3 in unidentified villages and 4 residents outside the region.
Nome woman reported missing, friends organize searches
For weeks, Nome police, Alaska State Troopers and local residents held widespread searches for 33-year-old Nome resident Florence Okpealuk, who was reported missing on August 31. She was last seen on West Beach, and search parties scoured the seaside and tundra west of Nome for days without finding anything. Trained search dogs and the FBI later got involved with the search, and ivory divers from Savoonga came to help search the ocean and nearby lakes, but the searches yielded nothing. To date, Florence Okpealuk is still missing.
Russian Navy surprises American pollock fleet in Bering Sea
Just south of St. Lawrence Island, a number of American commercial fishing vessels were surprised in the last days of August and first days of September by an unexpected Russian naval exercise known as “Operation Shield.” The exercise involved a nuclear submarine and other naval ships appearing unexpectedly in American fishing waters, warning ships to immediately evacuate the area, and causing millions of dollars in losses. The Coast Guard did not adequately warn fishers of the exercise, and later held talks with the fishing industry on how to better deal with similar events in the future. The exercises were the latest iteration of an increasingly militarized Arctic region.
Nome schools are in the green zone, Bering Strait School District opens in the red zone
Nome Public Schools opened in September in the “green” zone, meaning that case numbers were low enough in Nome that students could attend in-person classes full time. Meanwhile, BSSD schools started in the “red” zone, with students starting out entirely through a distance learning program.
Public safety panel wants seat at the table
In a Nome Common Council meeting, Public Safety Advisory Commissioner Lisa Ellanna voiced longstanding complaints that the new Commission was not being adequately informed or recognized amid pressing public safety issues, specifically the forcible arrest of Milan Schield and the search for Florence Okpealuk. The Commission, which was less than a year old, was originally intended to advise the City and hold it accountable for public safety issues, after many years of community activism against irresponsible policing. In practice, however, the Commission and the City did not see eye to eye on the Commission’s role and responsibilities, leading the Commission to be largely ineffective throughout the fall.
80 COVID-19 cases: 6 in Nome, 25 in Gambell, 42 in Stebbins, 1 in Savoonga, 1 in St. Michael, 1 in an unidentified village and 4 residents traveling outside the region
John Handeland wins mayoral race
Following the much-mourned death of Mayor Richard Beneville in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, former mayor and Nome Joint Utilities manager John Handeland took over as interim mayor to guide the City of Nome through uncertain times. He then decided to run for the position in the fall, and cemented his role by handily winning the election. Handeland ended up winning 55 percent of the vote, with his two challengers, Colleen Deighton and Ken Hughes, winning 22 percent and 19 percent respectively.
Gambell suffers largest COVID-19 outbreak in region to date
With more than 30 positive COVID-19 cases in just a matter of weeks, Gambell was the site of the Bring Strait/Norton Sound region’s first true COVID-19 outbreak. The outbreak started when six members of one household all tested positive at once, and at the outbreak’s height healthcare officials were tracking around 200 close contacts in the community of 700 people. City and tribal officials, along with VPSOs, established a strict curfew and helped deliver food and water to affected households so that positive cases could stay in isolation. After weeks of fear and uncertainty, the lockdowns were ultimately effective, and all positive cases were able to recover, leaving the village COVID-free.
Stebbins sees another outbreak of 18 COVID-19 cases
The Stebbins outbreak grew more slowly than the Gambell outbreak, but ultimately became much larger. After a surge of 18 cases in just two weeks, the village spent the better part of a month in full lockdown as the virus continued to spread, ultimately infecting upwards of 60 people.
Body of shipwrecked gold miner found, one man still missing
On Sunday, Oct. 18, Nome Search and Rescue volunteers found the body of Serhii Denysenko, 56, on a beach west of Cape Nome. Denysenko was one of three gold miners traveling from Bluff to Nome when a large wave capsized their boat, throwing all three men into the ocean. One of the miners, 51-year-old Pavel Denisenko, made it to shore in a liferaft and called Nome Search and Rescue to report the two other missing miners. Denysenko was subsequently found dead, and the third miner, Alexei Klutchnikov, 52, was never found.
84 COVID-19 cases: 50 in Nome, 22 in Stebbins, 3 in Golovin, 2 in Shaktoolik, 1 in Unalakleet, 1 in Elim, 1 in Savoonga, 1 in St. Michael, 1 in an unidentified village and 2 residents traveling outside the region
Eight arrested on drug charges in multi-agency sting
Alaska State Troopers arrested eight people after a months-long investigation into the sale of heroin and methamphetamine in Nome. The Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team, led by Sgt. Kevin Blanchette with the help of the Nome Police Department, the FBI and two Bethel WAANT officers, executed a simultaneous raid on all eight suspects in one day. Seven grams of heroin, valued at around $7,000, along with $4,300 in cash were seized during the operation. WAANT had been investigating the individuals since January 2020.
2020 Elections: Biden wins presidency
After several days of nationwide tension, media organizations called the 2020 presidential election for Democratic candidate Joe Biden on Saturday, November 7. Republican incumbents Senator Dan Sullivan and Representative Don Young beat out Democratic challengers Al Gross and Alyse Galvin, maintaining the state’s all-Republican congressional delegation. Locally, Democrats State Senator Donald Olson and State Representative Neal Foster also held on to their seats.
Fall storm wreaks havoc
From the night of Wednesday, November 4 through Friday, November 6, the Bering Strait/Norton Sound region experienced the most violent fall storm of the season. Businesses and public institutions in the region closed for days as people hunkered down to wait out the storm, and heavy flooding and wind damaged buildings and infrastructure. The mouth of the Nome river was entirely washed out by the storm surge, and a cabin at Fort Davis wascompletely uprooted and pushed upriver. Shishmaref’s dump road washed out and became almost unusable, causing lasting infrastructure damage in the low-lying village already beset by rising sea levels.
COVID-19 surge in Nome prompts citywide closures
At the end of November, Nome experienced its first major outbreak of COVID-19, after a positive case at a bar led to a surge of new cases and even more close contacts. In just a few weeks, the city saw almost 50 active cases arise all at once, putting unprecedented stress on the local healthcare system. Businesses and public institutions across the city closed in response, and the Nome Common Council voted to shut down bars and restaurants. Nome’s usual medley of Christmas celebrations were all cancelled. A number of patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 during the surge, but no one required intensive care in Anchorage, and no one died.
55 COVID-19 cases: 55 in Nome
City closes bars, restaurants, limits taxi passengers
In a special meeting at the end of December, the Nome Common Council passed an emergency ordinance effectively ordering the closure of all bars and restaurants to in-person service, specifically with regards to the consumption of alcohol. Businesses could still sell food and alcohol for consumption off-site, so some restaurants could stay open for takeout, but the ordinance essentially ended all activity at Nome’s bars. Taxicabs were also limited to only carry one household at a time and require masks and gatherings in public spaces were limited to 10 people or less, except for grocery stores. The Council also decided to use its remaining CARES funding to offer financial relief to those unemployed because of the shutdowns. While the measure was meant to last around two weeks, it was extended as case numbers in Nome remained high.
The first COVID-19 vaccinations arrived in Nome
On Wednesday, December 16, the first doses of COVID-19 vaccine, produced by Pfizer/BioNTech, arrived in Nome from Anchorage, and Norton Sound Health Corporation began administering doses to residents and staff of Quyanna Care Center almost immediately. About a week later, Nome received its first doses of the Moderna vaccine, and began sending vaccination teams to regional villages in order to vaccinate clinic staff and Elders.
2021 Iditarod won’t be coming to Nome
On Friday, December 18, the Iditarod Trail Committee announced that the 49th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race would follow an altered course due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of traveling from Deshka Landing at Willow to Nome, competitors will get about halfway down the trail before turning around in the ghost town of Iditarod/Flat and traveling back to Willow.