City Manager shares his thoughts on one year of the pandemic
Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race from an international celebration that gloriously ends in Nome to a time of uncertainty and anxiety. One year later, the race has been changed even more, truncated halfway and skipping Nome altogether. In the time between, the virus has killed millions worldwide and changed daily life for the entire world, but Nome and the surrounding region have been spared the worst of the destruction. City Manager Glenn Steckman said locking down Nome early was the key to protecting it from the pandemic.
“I can remember when we had that Council meeting and that discussion of how we were going to handle the Iditarod, which was already on its way to Nome at that point,” he said. “And we had probably 150 in our Council chambers demanding action be taken by the Council. I remember that very vividly.”
All but one attendee in that meeting were unmasked – the importance of masks wasn’t widely known at that point – many Nome residents spoke forcefully about the importance of taking the virus seriously.
Some called back to the influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919 that ravaged the Seward Peninsula, killing hundreds of people and wiping entire communities off the map. Steckman said that collective memory made it all the more pressing to be proactive with prevention.
In response, the City of Nome became one of the first communities in Alaska to institute a community-wide shutdown. This involved closing public facilities and instituting a mandatory travel permit for all incoming and outgoing travelers in which they explained why they were coming to Nome and how they were planning to quarantine. The state imposed closures of bars and restaurants.
The travel restrictions in particular were very unpopular with some segments of the population, who saw the measures as overbearing. “Working with the hospital and understanding the seriousness of this virus – which became politicized – was probably one of the most difficult things to deal with,” Steckman said. “People would get into your face and be very aggressive, talking about how ‘You’re not taking away my constitutional rights!’”
“That was never the intent. The intent was to protect the population up here – especially the elderly population – from a virus that no one really knew how aggressive it would be,” he said.
Later in the summer, the travel permit would be reworked into a non-mandatory travel form, and while testing and quarantining were mandated by the City, enforcement proved difficult.
Still, the attitude of being aggressive with prevention measures has persisted, and the vast majority of incoming travelers choose voluntarily to get tested at the airport. Those measures, combined with strong support from Norton Sound Health Corporation and widespread cooperation in the community, have helped keep the region’s case numbers some of the lowest in the state and the country.
While isolated outbreaks in Gambell, Stebbins and Nome cropped up periodically throughout the fall, most of the region has remained relatively free of community spread. Only a few regional residents have been hospitalized with the virus, and none have died.
As case numbers fall and vaccine-induced herd immunity appears to be in reach, Steckman said he’s thinking about the future. “I’m a person who looks forward, I try not to look backward,” he said.
He plans to commission an “After Action Report” once the pandemic is officially over to review what things the City did right and what it could have been done better, so the experience of COVID-19 isn’t forgotten when future city administrations face similar challenges.
He also said the pandemic has boosted the City’s teleworking capabilities, prompting them to invest in the infrastructure to hold remote meetings and broadcast City Council sessions on the internet.
While he expects most City business will return to normal once the pandemic is over, the improved IT capabilities are here to stay. “We can stream our meetings now, so people have more avenues if they wish to follow along with what’s happening in their government,” Steckman said.
He’s also working with the Chamber of Commerce to prepare for the tourism impacts of this summer and the summer after. While travel will likely be possible for the vaccinated this summer, and cruise ships are planning to stop in Nome, it’s unclear how willing people will be to travel, or how the economic downturn will affect people’s travel choices.
He added that he’s disappointed to see the Iditarod not come to Nome this year – he feels that the City’s quarantine policies developed for Iron Dog could have been applied to the Iditarod with minimal risk – but he respects the Iditarod’s decision, and he’s trying to look to the future. “We want to plan and look forward to the 50th anniversary, which will be next year, and hopefully will be bigger and better than ever,” he said.
Reporting for this story was supported by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism