School reopening is still uncertain
Mayor Ethan Berkowitz encouraged Anchorage residents to continue taking precautions against coronavirus at a community briefing Friday, capping off a week that saw an increase in new virus cases citywide. Whether or not schools will reopen in person depends on Anchorage flattening the curve again, the mayor said — this time, as businesses are opening up around the state.
The number of new coronavirus cases in Anchorage reached 153 last week, Public Health Division Manager Christy Lawton said at the briefing, whereas the week prior the city saw 58 new cases. Last week’s daily average was 22 new cases per day.
Lawton expressed concern about the increase in cases, saying that the city’s public health services are at “maximum capacity.” The state’s contact tracing program is experiencing one- to two-day delays as tracers reach out to infected cases and their contacts, which means cases could be spreading the virus unknowingly during that time. Furthermore, some people are unwilling to follow the directions of contact tracers when they do call.
While COVID-19 testing facilities are not yet strained for supplies, there are some delays in returning testing results to patients, said Dr. Bruce Chandler, Medical Officer of Disease Prevention and Control for the Anchorage Health Department.
Lawton encouraged people who have traveled to wait until they receive two consecutive negative test results before they go on with business as usual. Some infected cases might see a first test come back negative, she said, but then their second test result will be positive.
When asked about the possibility of reinstating a stay-at-home mandate, Berkowitz said it would be a “distant possibility.”
“Let’s not go there,” he said. “Let’s do the things voluntarily that we know work” — meaning social distancing, wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings, and spending as little time inside public venues as possible, among other precautions.
The mayor also emphasized that the in-person reopening of schools will depend on the status of the virus in Anchorage in August, when the school year restarts.
At a separate press conference on Thursday, June 9, Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop and Deputy Superintendent Mark Stock announced that the district will do its best to hold classes in person this fall, with classrooms initially operating at smaller capacity.
In the best-case scenario, students will return to school in shifts for the first few weeks of the year. Beginning on August 20, students in each class will be split into two groups; each group will attend class two days a week instead of five. When they are not in school, students will learn online.
If this plan goes well, schools will then return to a somewhat normal schedule, with additional precautionary measures.
But if cases are at a high-risk level in August, or at any point during the semester, schools will go online.
“If we do not flatten the curve, if we cannot contain the virus, we will not be able to open the schools,” Berkowitz said. He said it is too early to tell what the threshold will be for deciding whether or not to open schools come August, but that the district will monitor data from state health officials to determine if it is safe.
Even if school is held in person, families can opt for a virtual schooling program as an alternative.
The Anchorage School District has asked parents to fill out a nine-question survey indicating their schooling preferences for the fall. Families who have not already filled it out can do so in Spanish or English at www.asdk12.org.
Keeping customers and employees safe
Lawton encouraged businesses and organizations to keep contact logs of patrons so that, in the case that the virus spreads from a business, contact tracers can reach out to potential cases more efficiently.
Berkowitz also advised businesses to continue letting employees work remotely as much as possible, to ventilate indoor spaces, and to use outdoor spaces if possible.
Applying for relief funding and tax refunds
The city still has housing relief money to give to in-need residents of Anchorage, the mayor announced at the briefing. Through the COVID-19 Rent and Mortgage Assistance Pilot Program, the city has approximately $1 million to distribute; so far, it has only distributed around $400,000.
Residents who have lost income because of the pandemic are eligible for the program, and they can use the funds to pay rent or mortgage costs. At maximum, citizens may receive $1,000 a month for up to two months. (This program is not the same as the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation’s Housing Relief Program).
Eligible residents are encouraged to call 2-1-1 to apply. According to the city’s website, interpreters are available to provide translation services. Residents can apply until there are no more funds, or until September 30, 2020, depending on which comes first.
“Let’s make sure we’re not shy about using that if the need exists,” Berkowitz said of the funds.
Berkowitz also reminded residents that the tax deadline is July 15, and that families making less than $66,000 a year can apply for an earned income tax credit.
Eligible residents can apply for a credit at muni.org/taxhelp. There is a Spanish-language version of the site available at the link.
Residents looking to file taxes, fill out the census, or apply for work can use the computers at the Anchorage Public Library if necessary. Additionally, WiFi is available outside public library locations.