The Holland America Line cruise ships Eurodam, left, and Nieuw Amsterdam pull into Juneau’s downtown harbor on May 1, 2017. Large cruise ships are unlikely to visit Alaska this summer due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns, restrictions at the Canadian border, and a lack of sailing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. However, in a close 5-4 vote Monday evening, the City Assembly decided to relax COVID-19-related travel mandates sooner rather than later and made other changes to make travel easier for the upcoming tourist season.  (Michael Penn/Juneau Empire File)

Officials say end is in sight, but caution remains necessary

Assembly votes to relax travel restrictions earlier in May.

City officials said they are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and are thinking about how the virus mitigations may end in the future.

“We are watching legislative issues at the national and state level and following it very closely. We are thinking about how we get out of this and how this ends,” said Deputy City Manager Mila Cosgrove, who is also the emergency operations center incident commander, at Tuesday’s weekly community COVID-19 briefing. “It’s very much in our minds as we think about how to navigate that terrain.”

Overall, Juneau’s seven-day infection level is 0.58%, officially considered a “minimal” level of spread.

Although brighter days are on the horizon, officials warned that it’s not yet time to relax mitigations.

“It’s been a long year,” Cosgrove said. “But I think it’s super important not to let up this close to the finish line. Keep up the things that have kept us low. People have paid attention and tried to do well by each other. A big thank you to everyone persevering through this.”

Work continues even with new cases at the Capitol

Rorie Watt, CBJ city manager, agreed.

“We know people are tired and burned out on COVID. But, the overriding thing is to stick together on mitigation strategies. We can’t let down our guard,” Watt said. “Our case numbers are low. We’ve done a good job masking. We’ve caught positive people at the airport.”

Watt urged residents to get tested at any sign of symptoms.

“Good testing is part of our strategy. Call 586-6000 to get yourself scheduled for a test at the first sign of any symptoms,” Watt said.

Vaccines

Vaccines continue to roll out, with 20% of residents receiving both doses and an additional 10% receiving at least one dose.

More supply will soon be available as Juneau will get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, said Robert Barr, the city’s emergency operations center planning chief.

“I’m pretty confident that we will get that this month, but we don’t know how much or when,” he said. “My guidance is simply to get whatever one is available to you first,” he said.

A local vaccination clinic is scheduled for March 12-13.

“Vaccination is a group strategy,” Watt added, saying that the more people who get vaccinated, the closer we get to communitywide protection.

Travel changes

In a close 5-4 vote Monday evening, the City Assembly decided to relax COVID-19-related travel mandates sooner rather than later and made other changes to make travel easier for the upcoming tourist season.

Effective immediately, travelers who have been fully vaccinated for at least two weeks and are asymptomatic can skip social distancing requirements when they arrive in Juneau.

However, they are still required to test before travel and arrive with proof of a negative test or take a test at the airport. The $250 testing fee for out-of-state travelers will be waived and covered by the state. This direction is consistent with other large communities in Alaska and reflects that state’s guidance.

Beginning May 1, the city’s emergency travel ordinance will sunset. As a result, airport testing and strict social distancing requirements will end for all travelers, vaccinated or not. The emergency travel ordinance was initially set to expire on May 26. However, local businesses expressed concern that the May 26 date was having a chilling effect on summer bookings.

COVID at a glance for Monday, March 1

The assembly changed the sunset date to May 1 after robust debate and testimony from local business owners looking forseeking ways to attract independent travelers this summer.

Independent travelers are critical this summer as cruise ships are unlikely to sail to Alaskan waters amid ongoing COVID-19 concerns, Canada’s cruise ban and a lack of sailing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.

“We don’t want to see quarantine requirements extended until May 26,” Sarah Lowell, marketing director for Coastal Helicopters, told the assembly via Zoom. “With the rollout of the vaccine, May 26 is going to hinder our development with independent visitors. We need to hold on to every little bit we can,” she said.

Lowell added that Anchorage and Fairbanks don’t require social distancing after arriving in town — a factor that she said is prompting independent visitors to scratch Juneau off their summer travel itineraries.

Bradley Moore, who owns Moore Charters, told the assembly that the five-day social distancing requirement is making it difficult for him to book trips.

“I’ve lost thousands of dollars from people who choose not to do that,” Moore said.

Both Lowell and Moore said that hastening the sunset date for strict social distancing would make it easier for their business to survive another dismal travel season.

Some assembly members agreed.

“Three and half weeks is a huge amount of time. If we start the season with us closed and other Alaska cities open, it’s very simple; independent travelers will go elsewhere,” said Assembly member Wade Bryson. “We need to start on the right foot by adding three and half weeks to what’s going to be a dismal season. Let’s start to get back to normal.”

However, concern remained that relaxing the social distancing requirement as of May 1 could open the door to additional risk for the community.

“My concern is that we get it all the way to the finish line and then be in a serious situation,” said Assembly member Michelle Bonnet Hale. “We’ve done so much work. We may well be where we want to be in a couple of months. But, we don’t know that now. I don’t want to get us that close and then invite an outbreak into our community.”

Assembly member Loren Jones agreed with Hale.

“The logic is there that if we open sooner, we will have more independent travelers. At the same time, I worry because other places don’t have requirements and they also have some of the highest infection rates per capita. It’s a balance, physical and business,” Jones said. “Someone can come here and two days later test positive and during that time infect other people in the community. I don’t know where that tipping point is. I think it needs to be considered that one of the reasons we have been so successful is that we have the ability to make it a little safer for people coming into and those in the community.”

City officials said that they would alert assembly members if the city struggles with COVID-19 as May 1 approaches.

“If May 1 or 26 comes and things are not good, we will tell you. We won’t be shy,” Watt said.

Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneau.empire.com or 907-308-4891.

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