Dunleavy: Gov’t lead needed for pandemic recovery

  • Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks during a media tour at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Oct. 2, 2019. Cargo expansion projects at the airport, promising developments on the North Slope and a record amount of expected tourists were all helping the Alaska economy before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Dunleavy said in a speech to the Alaska Chamber, and government will have to lead recovery efforts in the coming months. (Photo/Elwood Brehmer/AJOC)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he expects the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic to ultimately benefit the beleaguered tourism industry and the economic recovery from 2020 should be led by government.

The governor spoke about ways to boost Alaska’s struggling economy Sept. 24 during the Alaska Chamber’s virtual annual Fall Forum gathering.

He emphasized that prior to the March economic shutdowns and travel restrictions that Alaska had a solid economic foundation with several billion dollar-plus oil projects in various stages of planning and development; large investments planned to grow the cargo business at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport; and record low unemployment in the state.

Alaska added approximately 1,300 jobs and had an unemployment rate of 5.8 percent in February. The state’s unemployment rate was reported at 7.4 percent in August, but according to the state Labor Department the number is likely artificially low because the virus has disrupted the household surveys typically conducted to compile the data. Overall, Alaska was down roughly 37,000 jobs year-over-year in August.

Tourism was one of the strongest sectors of Alaska’s economy for years prior to the pandemic, but has also been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic for a host of reasons. More than 1.3 million visitors were expected to arrive to the state via cruise ship at the start of the year; however, none of them showed up — by cruise anyway.

Dunleavy said state health and administration officials crafted the state’s plans and requirements for essential industry operations, notably commercial fishing, after observing COVID-19 outbreaks in the Lower 48; he also noted that Alaska’s overall COVID-19 case and death counts have been among the lowest in the country since the start of the pandemic.

Alaska’s total COVID-19 case count of 8,602 through Sept. 29 is the fifth-lowest in the country; the 1,176 cases per 100,000 residents is the eighth-lowest in the country, according to data tabulated by The New York Times.

“We had watched what happened at some of the meatpacking plants down south and we didn’t want to repeat that,” Dunleavy said.

State officials are now working on health protocols to restart the annual parade of cruise ships through the Inside Passage next spring, he added, acknowledging the success of the work will in part be contingent upon the efficacy and availability of a coronavirus vaccine and other treatments.

“The virus is going to be with us but it’s not going to control us,” Dunleavy said.

“We want to show them that we can manage this virus.”

How quickly Alaska’s broader tourism sector can rebound will largely depend on when the border with Canada is reopened for leisure travel as well.

The U.S.-Canada border is closed to nonessential travel through Oct. 21 — a restriction that has been extended six times since March — and Canadian ports are closed to large cruise ships until Oct. 31. Federal law requires all foreign flagged vessels traveling between U.S. ports to stop at a foreign port in between. For cruises bound for Alaska, that typically means stopping in or starting from Vancouver.

While the 2021 cruise season is still many months away, Brandon Lee, consul general of Canada to Alaska said during a Sept. 29 forum discussion that the Canadian government sees the pandemic primarily as a health crisis and is taking a very conservative approach to managing it.

“We’re really trying to prioritize the health of Canadians,” Lee said, adding that the border situation is evaluated “day-by-day, week-by-week.”

That evaluation is driven not only by case counts in the U.S., but also by the capacity in Canada’s health system, according to Lee.

Dunleavy stressed that the onus for Alaska’s broader economic recovery is on government because it was government restrictions that led to the ongoing struggles.

“Government has an obligation to fix and rectify what happened during the pandemic,” he said.

The best way to do that, Dunleavy said is with a “comprehensive, large, multi-year approach” to infrastructure development.

He added a common refrain for his administration that Alaska has the natural resources the world wants — all that’s needed is access.

When asked about the infrastructure development comments, the governor’s spokesman Jeff Turner said he was likely referring to the federal infrastructure package President Donald Trump has pushed to varying degrees throughout his term.

However, Dunleavy mentioned some state-specific projects and indicated his administration is working investment angles regardless of what the feds do. The administration is currently conducting pre-development analyses road projects to access resources in the Western Susitna Valley and Interior mineral prospects through the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, which is also seeking private investment for those projects.

“We need to refurbish our ports. We need to finish our rail spur (in the Mat-Su Borough),” Dunleavy said. “We’re exploring these opportunities with private investors and hopefully we’ll have more to announce in the next few weeks.”

Dunleavy thanked Trump for signing a presidential permit authorizing a border crossing for the proposed $13 billion Alberta to Alaska, or A2A, rail link that would add roughly 1,500 miles of track to connect Alaska Railroad tracks to those in Canada. Proponents of the general concept have long seen it as a way to export resources from Northern Canada and import products to Alaska more affordably.

The A2A project is specifically aimed at exporting Alberta tar sands oil through Alaska to world markets, but the project’s backers note it could be utilized for other shipments as well.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
09/30/2020 - 9:33am