Juneau’s City Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Juneau’s City Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Opinion: Juneau’s past offers lesson for handling COVID-19

“It ain’t over till it’s over.”

  • Tuesday, March 31, 2020 9:00am
  • Opinion

Since the onset of restrictions to contain COVID-19, the people of Juneau have risen to the challenge with grace, dignity and creativity. We have been heartened by how, in the face of this threat and the uncertainty that it brings, our citizens are graciously reaching out with service support and care for others, all of which bind us closer together despite “social distancing.”

However, as we slowly become accustomed to constraints on our daily movements, it is all-too-easy to become complacent and to relax our effort. Here we can draw a lesson from our predecessors little more than a century ago.

“Influenza is spreading in an alarming way” reported the Alaska Daily Empire in late September 1918. Over the course of the next several weeks, it traced the inexorable march of the “Spanish” influenza from the East Coast across the United States. One month later the epidemic had reached Gastineau Channel. On Oct. 29, city officials ordered the “quarantine of Juneau.” Public and private schools, saloons and theaters, and church services were suspended. Citizens were ordered to wear masks in public.

Despite these measures, hundreds fell ill, some died, but by Nov. 30, 1918, the disease in Juneau appeared to have run its course and the quarantine order was lifted. There was a sense of urgency to allow business to begin again. An aura of normalcy briefly reigned before a second wave swept the town. Faced with a sudden and rapid explosion of 75 new cases, on Dec. 18, Mayor Emery Valentine issued a second order. Its contents will sound hauntingly familiar. It reads in part:

“All places wherein people congregate shall be closed. This shall include all schools of whatsoever nature, all churches, all pool halls, hotel lobbies, the post office and all other public places, and not more than four people shall be allowed to congregate on the street or other public place at one time and all such persons shall wear masks of not less than six layers of cheese cloth or similar goods.

“All persons are forbidden to visit docks or floats except on urgent business and no person shall be permitted to land from any incoming boat or vessel until the said boat or vessel has been examined by the Health Officer and the gangway of said boat or vessel shall not be put ashore until the boat or vessel has been given a clean bill of health.”

With these new measures, Juneau recovered in early 1919. But they underscore the words of Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” If we’re to survive this time with minimum harm and maximum benefit, it will be because we all rigorously employ recommended behaviors and support everyone working for our health and safety. Our public officials and all personnel on the front lines are putting themselves in harm’s way to keep us well. We owe them and each other our cooperation to assure that we and Juneau emerge from this supreme challenge with minimal loss of life. Only our continuing vigilance will make that possible.

The March 28, 2020, CBJ COVID-19 guidelines can be found on the City and Borough of Juneau website https://beta.juneau.org/covid-19.

• Bruce Botelho, Byron Mallott, Dennis Egan, Sally Smith, Mary Becker and Merrill Sanford are all former Juneau mayors. The authors served respectively as follows: Botelho, 1988-91 and 2003-2012; Mallott, 1994-95; Egan, 1995-2000; Smith, 2000-2003; Sanford, 2012-2015; and Becker, 2015-16. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.

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