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Alaska prepares for next stage of reopening amid coronavirus

May 20, 2020 GMT

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Starting Friday, businesses in Alaska that were shut down or restricted due to coronavirus concerns can fully reopen, a significant step that Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy says the state can handle as it moves into a “management stage” of the virus.

There were mixed responses Wednesday. Some who saw reaction to the virus as overblown are eager to move on. Some plan to move cautiously. And some hope to get as close to normal as possible while continuing use of safeguards, such as employee masks and sanitizing practices.

Terry Pennington, manager and waitress at Rose’s Cafe in Healy, near Denali National Park and Preserve, said Dunleavy’s announcement was the talk of the small diner Wednesday. “Everybody we’ve talked to are ready, they’re past ready,” she said.

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The state has reported just over 400 cases of COVID-19 with 10 deaths. Dunleavy on Tuesday cited consistently low numbers and said restrictions bought time to build up health care capacity.

“The people of Alaska have given us that time. It’s come with great sacrifice,” Dunleavy said. “And so we believe we can manage this virus. We have to manage this virus.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

State officials began easing business restrictions April 24, allowing retail shops and salons to reopen and dine-in restaurant service to resume, all with limited capacity. Limits were loosened two weeks later, and additional businesses, such as gyms and theaters, were allowed to open at 25% capacity.

Starting Friday, Dunleavy’s office said businesses will be allowed to open at 100% capacity. The state continues urging people to take steps such as staying at least 6 feet (1.8 meters) from non-family members, frequently washing their hands and wearing masks in public areas where maintaining distance is difficult.

“What we’re hoping is if we do this the right way, change some of our habits a little bit in response to this virus, I think we’re going to continue to see our numbers do really well,” Dunleavy said.

A presentation from the administration said the success of remaining open “now lies fully in the hands of Alaskans.”

Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, an Anchorage Democrat, said Alaska has fared well compared to some other states with small populations, crediting actions taken early by the Dunleavy administration.

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“And yet we have now had a full reopening declared by the governor without fully understanding what the implications of that reopening will be,” Begich said. This is a time to “exercise thoughtful, prudent, safe practices that do not lead to an exponential growth in this disease,” he said.

Steve Lewis, owner and general manager of The Gym in Juneau, expects to continue limiting the number of people inside his facility, maintaining 12-foot (3.6 meter) distancing and adhering to enhanced cleaning protocols.

Lewis said it makes sense to maintain those standards “because people aren’t going to come into the gym if they don’t feel they’re going to be safe.” Masks also are required, he said.

Venietia Santana, who owns V’s Cellar Door, said her restaurant in Juneau has adjusted, including creating a curbside system when dine-in service was shut down.

She expects to resume operating as close to normal as possible “but we’re doing things a little differently,” including additional cleaning, having staff wear masks and gloves and asking customers their comfort level in where they are seated and if they want people at a table next to them.

“I think that when people are comfortable is when they’ll come out, no matter what the governor says,” Santana said. “We just want them to feel the most comfort that they can.”

People coming into Alaska have been asked to observe a 14-day quarantine, which will be re-evaluated by June 2, state officials said.

Nome City Manager Glenn Steckman said residents in his community are concerned about people coming in from outside the region. The city has 14-day quarantine or testing protocols for people traveling into Nome, he said. The area was hit hard by the flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919.

“There are long memories of a pandemic, and obviously some people are very cautious on how they’re reopening,” he said.

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Thiessen contributed from Anchorage, Alaska.

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