Post #57: Dispatch From Fairbanks

Rick Elson reports:

I’m not sure if April truly is the cruelest month up here, but it’s certainly the ugliest: the pristine whiteness of a snow-covered winter deteriorates into mud and muck and cracked roads. The trees haven’t greened up yet, though the geese, sandhill cranes, swans, and ducks have returned.
T-shirts and hoodies are already available that read ‘Alaska: Social Distancing since 1959’. And as remote as we are physically from the rest of the US (the lower 48, as it’s referred to here), we’re remote as well from the full intensity of the impact of the virus, though certainly not exempt from it. Here are a few statistics, just to put it in perspective:
— the first covid-19 case was confirmed here on March 11;
— schools closed here on March 16; non-essential services were closed and a stay-at-home order was issued on March 28;
— since then, there have been 341 cases in the state (population around 750,00) with 217 of them now considered fully recovered ;
— 36 people have been hospitalized due to the virus, none in the last ten days; and nine deaths have been attributed to it in the state, none in the last 17 days;
— here in Fairbanks, it has been 15 days since any new cases have been reported, and yesterday was the first day with zero new cases in the entire state.
So, lots of relatively good news, and lots of room for optimism. We’ll have to see if that optimism fades as the state begins to loosen restrictions, allowing non-essential businesses to re-open as of this past Friday. We are all hoping, of course, we don’t see a spike in cases.
Alaska is a red state, though more of a libertarian shade of red, less so a socially conservative shade. That redness often manifests itself here as a disdain for the federal government, and at its ugliest as an attitude of ‘don’t tread on me’. But Alaska is also very much a live and let live place, a place where diverse attitudes and lifestyles are widely accepted; and so it’s been heartening to see how well most people have been abiding by the social distancing recommendations when inside stores, and the majority are also wearing masks while doing so.
Our governor is currently facing a recall initiative for his handling of budget shortfalls, though it is to his credit that he is deferring to state health officials in issuing health mandates. He insists that health remains a priority over economics; the next two weeks should tell us a lot if he really means it.
Even with the stay at home order, people have been encouraged to go outside to exercise and to enjoy the fresh air while continuing to maintain social distancing. I’m out every day walking the dog, and I see couples walking, young parents pushing strollers, people riding bikes, runners running…and it’s all easy to do, it’s easy here to spread out. Yesterday, I saw two teens playing one-on-one basketball at a playground, both wearing masks.
Cruise ships to Alaska have been cancelled for this summer’s tourist season; the ripple effects of that will pass through the hotels, restaurants, and gift shops. Mid-May is typically when we start to see motor homes arrive with license plates from all over the lower 48, though I imagine they will be fewer in number this year. Denali National Park is about a two-hour drive south of here, but the park road has been closed to discourage intra-state travel.
Last summer was a terrible wildfire season here, and many crews from other states came up to battle the fires that were threatening residential areas. The Alaska Fire Service and Bureau of Land Management are currently trying to figure out how to bring up extra crews if needed while still keeping up with proper health protocols.
When not at work, my wife, Tatiana, and I are both homebodies, so the virus hasn’t really altered our social lives in major ways. Lots of good home cooking and playing with the dog, watching some Netflix after dinner: our usual routine. In another week or so, I should hear the first robins returning, with thrushes, juncos, sparrows, and warblers soon after that. Springsummerfall is pretty much one season here, and it’s normally magnificent. We’ll see what this year has in store. Stay safe and healthy out there.

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