BROWN'S CLOSE: Love in the Time of Corona

Dating behavior has changed due to the coronavirus. Singles are now encouraged to pursue socially distanced dating, be that virtually, or through wholesome, six foot spaced walks.  This phenomenon has been a boon to online dating platforms. Bumble, the dating app with the second highest userbase in the United States, saw more than a 20 percent increase in usage during the early days of the pandemic, and hit the 100 million user mark in July. The app is geared towards women, with females bearing the brunt of messaging matches first. Men have twenty-four hours to respond, or not. I am a veteran online dater, and have used Bumble specifically. The field of candidates on the app is endlessly fascinating, and the details men choose to put in their profiles is telling. Over the years, I’ve honed a fool proof vetting method for profiles, based on several cardinal offenses. For example, you must have all of your clothes on in all of your pictures. Possible exceptions can be made for beach pictures, but in that case, you cannot have more than one beach picture.             And then there are the Selfie Sins: One must never post selfies in bed; One must never post selfies in the bathroom; One must never post selfies in the car; If all of the photos in your profile are selfies, I am forced to assume you have no friends, or anyone else in your life who could take your picture. Bumble does appeal to female empowerment enthusiasts, and in keeping with this theme, users are encouraged to post information on their profile that traditionally would not be discussed in mixed company. Bumble asks users to disclose their political and religious affiliations, and whether or not the user votes. Singles can then filter out matches who do not conform to their preferred affiliations. You can also filter by the most important quality of all: the astrological sign. I’ve had dating success on Bumble, with “success” defined as dating people long term whom I met through the app. Those aren’t the fun stories, however. People just want to hear about the disasters. Not to disappoint, some dates were resoundingly painful. For example, I went out with a college educated, 6-foot-7 math major. He was a self-proclaimed Catholic opera lover and cello player, who now worked as a commercial fisherman. Reading all of these specifics in his profile piqued my curiosity; he sure seemed to have a lot going on. We had coffee at Starbucks for the requisite 47 minutes. I asked questions, and he took full 30 second pauses before he would answer each. He would drag on his drink, look off ponderously at some destination just above my right shoulder, and sigh, “You know, I never thought about that.” A few days after the date, he texted: “My brain hurts from your questioning. Are you always that intense?” To be fair, I did ask him a lot of questions. Those questions, however, were about deep topics like, “What’s your favorite movie?” After he sat silently for a time, and then announced he’d never thought about it, I downgraded to an easier level: “What’s your favorite color?” That too was a head scratcher. Among a few other life lessons, Bumble’s most persistent impact on me is to be skeptical of people I find on the Internet: People on the Internet may not be all there. I stopped seeing one man after he screamed about how much his genitalia hurt while we were at the Anchorage Symphony. People on the Internet do not waste time. Multiple men over the years have asked me to move in with them on the third date. One even asked me to move across state lines. And yet — People on the Internet are flaky. I once had a guy miss our date at 11 in the morning on a Saturday because he did not set his alarm. Willing to give him a second chance, I agreed to meet him for lunch the following week. He texted to confirm lunch plans that morning, and then later that he was on his way. The trouble was that he texted to say he was leaving his house in the suburbs 10 minutes after the date had already started, and it would take him another 27 minutes to arrive. Honestly, waiting around for another half-hour would have been the death knell to my dignity. People on the Internet are weird. One man’s profile had a photo of him completely nude, submerged in a bathtub full of royal blue paint. No other explanation or notation. Sure, online dating can be fun. It can also be the source of a stellar headache. Good luck to all the Single Ladies. Sarah Brown is the Love Doctor. Write to her at [email protected], and on Twitter @BrownsClose1. “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac. For more of Sarah’s musings, visit Browns-Close.com.

S&P 500 closes out longest weekly win streak of 2020

NEW YORK (AP) — The gains keep piling up on Wall Street, and the S&P 500 rallied again on Aug. 28 to close out its fifth straight winning week. The benchmark index rose 23.46, or 0.7 percent, to 3,508.01, setting another record high and several more superlatives. It was the seventh straight day of gains for the index. It also capped a 3.3 percent rally for the week to cement its longest weekly winning streak since December, before the coronavirus pandemic swept the world and sent economies tumbling into recession. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rallied 161.6, or 0.6 percent, to 28,653.87 and clawed its way back to a tiny gain for the year. It’s just 0.4 percent, but it’s the first time the Dow has been up for 2020 since late February. The Nasdaq composite climbed 70.30, or 0.6 percent, to 11,695.63 to set another record. It’s lapped the other U.S. stock indexes many times over, thanks to market-leading gains for big technology stocks, and it’s up 30.3 percent for 2020 so far. A report released before trading began showed that U.S. consumer spending grew more in July than economists expected. That’s key because consumer spending is the main driver of the nation’s economy. Consumers increased their spending by 1.9 percent for the third straight month of gains, though it was a slowdown from June’s 6.2 percent growth. Income also rose by 0.4 percent for Americans last month, snapping back from a drop in June. It adds to other reports showing the economy has improved since the worst of the business lockdowns of the spring, though it remains well below where it was before the pandemic. Data recently has also been relatively mixed. Ulta Beauty, a company that relies on consumers opening their wallets, jumped 5.8 percent for one of the biggest gains in the S&P 500 after it reported a drop in profit for the latest quarter that wasn’t as bad as Wall Street analysts expected. Technology stocks also again helped to pull the market higher. HP rose 6.1 percent after it reported better profit for the latest quarter than analysts expected. The pandemic means more people are working and learning — and printing documents — from home, which helps sales of all kinds of products for HP. Stocks are continuing to rise after the Federal Reserve on Aug. 27 unveiled a change in strategy that likely means interest rates will stay low for a long time, even if inflation rises above the 2 percent target level of the central bank. It’s something Fed Chair Jerome Powell called a form of “average inflation targeting” in a widely anticipated speech, and its full ramifications are still to be determined. “Markets are trying to figure out what the Fed actually meant by its average inflation target,” said Jamie Cox, managing partner for Harris Financial Group. Low interest rates and massive amounts of bond purchases by the Fed have helped prop up the economy, and they’re a central reason the S&P 500 has been able to recover from its nearly 34 percent plunge earlier this year, even though the pandemic is still raging. With aid from the Federal Reserve firmly in place, investors want to see Congress also deliver more support for the economy. Weekly benefits that it approved earlier for unemployed workers have run out, and investors say the economy desperately needs another lifeline from Capitol Hill to carry it through its current weakness. “You can already see some cracks forming in what consumer spending will look like if there isn’t much support in the future,” Cox said. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the White House’s chief of staff resumed talks on a big aid package Aug. 27, the first attempt to restart talks after negotiations fell apart earlier this month. But no deal seems imminent with both sides remaining far apart. Stock indexes abroad were mixed as the Fed’s momentous decision continued to work its way through currency and other markets. In Europe, Germany’s DAX lost 0.5 percent, and France’s CAC 40 slipped 0.3 percent. The FTSE 100 in London was down 0.6 percent. The Nikkei 225 lost 1.4 percent after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he is resigning due to health problems. Abe stepped down from a brief earlier term as prime minister in 2007, also for health reasons. He recently became Japan’s longest continuously serving prime minister. Elsewhere in Asia, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng climbed 0.6 percent, South Korea’s Kospi added 0.4 percent and stocks in Shanghai jumped 1.6 percent. The yield on the 10-year Treasury gave back a bit of its big rise from the day before, dipping to 0.73 percent from 0.74 percent late Aug. 27. The 30-year yield rose to 1.51 percent from 1.50 percent. Longer-term yields remain well above shorter-term yields, including the two-year yield at 0.14 percent. A wider gap between them can indicate rising investor expectations for the economy and inflation in the future. Benchmark U.S. crude oil slipped 7 cents to settle at $42.97 per barrel. Brent crude, the international standard, fell 4 cents to $45.05 per barrel.

Opposition grows to expanding fish farming

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — President Donald Trump wants to dramatically expand aquaculture production in the United States, but a coalition of environmentalists believes his plan would be bad for the oceans, unnecessary for food security and difficult to implement. Trump’s bid to grow fish farming is designed to address the so-called “seafood deficit,” which refers to the fact that nine-tenths of the seafood Americans eat comes from overseas. The seafood trade gap with other countries approached $17 billion in 2017, according to one federal government report. The president issued an executive order in May that promised broad changes in how the U.S. regulates fish farming. It included provisions to expedite the development of offshore aquaculture in deep federal waters. That sector of the industry has yet to emerge in the U.S., where most aquaculture takes place near shore where farmers grow salmon, oysters and other popular seafood items. The Trump administration and the aquaculture industry said the order, which is being implemented now, represents common sense steps to ease the burden of rules on fish farmers. But environmental groups said it threatens to increase pollution and over-development in the ocean at a time when many consumers aren’t buying seafood. “They’re trying to somehow connect open-water aquaculture with the need for domestic food. But it just doesn’t make sense,” said Marianne Cufone, executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, one of several environmental groups that oppose the move. “Why we’re seeing it during a pandemic, I don’t know, I’m shaking my head.” The executive order gives the nation’s regional fishery management councils, which regulate fisheries, six months to recommend “actions to reduce burdens on domestic fishing.” One of the order’s stated goals is “more effective permitting related to offshore aquaculture and additional streamlining of fishery regulations,” with ”the potential to revolutionize American seafood production.” The order aims to bring seafood production to the U.S. instead of keeping the nation dependent on other countries, said Paul Doremus, deputy assistant administrator for operations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service. “We’re a major seafood consuming country and we could be producing more of that seafood internally,” Doremus said. “That’s the driving force behind the executive order as a whole.” Aquaculture in federal waters has support from some major fish farmers, including Cooke Aquaculture, a Canada-based seafood giant. Cooke spokesman Joel Richardson said the order shows Trump’s administration knows “the world needs more aquaculture to feed the world.” The company’s operations include salmon farms in the nearshore waters of Maine. Hallie Templeton, senior oceans campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said it’s not the right time to grow fish farming. Seafood is popular in restaurants, and the coronavirus pandemic has caused many to shutter, at least temporarily. Seafood sales to restaurants fell 90% in the early weeks of the pandemic. The industry has since seen an infusion of CARES Act money to help it recover, but continues to struggle. Templeton called offshore aquaculture “floating factory farms” and said they are more likely to cause pollution in the marine environment than provide sustainable food. A recent court ruling dealt a blow to the prospects for offshore fish farming. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a decision Aug. 3 that federal law granting NOAA authority over fisheries does not also let the agency set rules for offshore fish farms. That scuttled rules that could have regulated fish farms in the Gulf of Mexico. Environmental groups heralded the court’s ruling because it likely makes it more difficult for farmers to start large offshore operations that would raise species such as tuna, salmon and seabass. “Allowing net-pen aquaculture and its environmental harms in the Gulf of Mexico is a grave threat, and the court properly held the government cannot do so without new and proper Congressional authority,” said George Kimbrell, Center for Food Safety legal director and a lead counsel in the case. The prospect of offshore aquaculture has been contentious for years. President Barack Obama also took steps to permit deep water fish farming during his tenure. The aquaculture industry remains hopeful that Trump’s executive order can help pave the way for more fish farming, both nearshore and offshore. Paul Zajicek, executive director of the National Aquaculture Association, said the order isn’t about eliminating regulations but rather “removing barriers to aquaculture permitting” for farmers. Some fishing groups have also come out in support of the order. Scot Mackey, director of government affairs for the Garden State Seafood Association, which advocates for fishermen as well as farmers, said the order “will help the industry weather the current crisis and come back stronger.” Neville Crabbe, spokesman for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, a conservation group, said the federal permitting process should be creating land-based aquaculture rather than fish farms in the ocean, let alone offshore. “It’s not clear how locating that production just further away from the coasts would help with things like diseases and parasites and other problems that plague the industry today,” he said.

Trilogy: Copper prospect still profitable at higher costs

Costs have grown but expectations remain high for what developers hope will be the first in a series of hard rock mines in Interior Alaska. The Arctic copper, zinc and precious metals prospect has a post-tax net present value, or NPV, of approximately $1.3 billion at current metal prices and a value of more than $1.1 billion based on longer-term price forecasts, according to a feasibility study conducted by Trilogy Metals Inc., which owns claims to the deposit. The study also concluded that the project would have a post-tax payback period of 2.6 years and a final investor return rate of about 27 percent. Those figures are despite the fact that the total expected capital cost for the remote mine has increased 34 percent to more than $1.2 billion largely due to findings that the project will likely have to treat a lot more water than was once thought. A 5 percent increase in dilution, or mined waste rock, also slightly lowered the grade of the copper, zinc, gold, silver and lead reserves in the project. However, with 2.1 billion pounds of probable copper reserves averaging more than 2.2 percent, Arctic is still one of the highest-grade copper prospects going, according to Trilogy leaders. A pre-feasibility study published in February 2018 pegged Arctic’s all-in capital cost at $910 million. “Overall, we’re very happy with the results of this feasibility study considering the capital increases that we’ve seen in the project and factoring in that there’s no new resources that have been included as part of this project,” CEO Tony Giardini said in a call with investors. Located in the middle of the Ambler mining district on the southern edge of the Brooks Range, the Arctic mine project is the most advanced prospect of more than a dozen in the roughly 75-mile long district. It also would likely be the first mine serviced by the state-sponsored Ambler access road, which has drawn the ire of many area residents and conservation groups. Giardini also said the company has identified opportunities to extend the open pit mine beyond its current 12-year life — as part of the current prospect and processing other deposits through the Arctic facilities — that need to be studied further. Bob Jacko, the operations director for Vancouver-based Trilogy said a roughly 30 percent increase in annual precipitation at the mine site in recent years will require larger sewage and water treatment systems than previously thought, adding to the capital and operating expenses of the project. The new water will also necessitate a more robust tailings dam; the initial tailings infrastructure cost has gone from $30.3 million in the 2018 study to $69 million currently. “It gets us in every area of the operation,” Jacko said of the additional water, noting the need to treat larger quantities adds to closure costs. Giardini said the increased capital costs are the primary driver in a reduction of cash flow — from $4.5 billion pre-tax in 2018 to $3.7 billion today. While Arctic was initially explored by Trilogy, a junior mining firm, Australian-based South32 bought into the project late last year and the company’s have since formed Ambler Metals LLC, the operating company for the advanced Arctic and nearby Bornite multi-metal prospects. Trilogy and South32 each hold 50 percent of Ambler Metals. Even with Arctic’s positive — if slightly tempered — financial indicators, a decision to ultimately build the mine will depend primarily on how quickly the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority can progress development of the Ambler access road, Giardini said. Trilogy leaders have long said the 211-mile industrial-use road is a prerequisite to constructing any mine in the remote mineral belt. The toll road concept is modeled after the DeLong Mountain Transportation System owned by AIDEA that feeds the Red Dog zinc mine in Northwest Alaska. Ambler Metals signed a memorandum of understanding with the state development bank in June in which the company agreed to fund half of the stakeholder outreach and pre-development engineering and study costs up to $35 million. Estimated in 2017 to cost between $280 million and $380 million for basic gravel construction, the road’s final environmental impact statement, or EIS, conducted by the Bureau for Land Management, now pegs the total construction cost at approximately $520 million. BLM issued a record of decision approving the project July 23. Trilogy Chief Financial Officer Elaine Sanders said there is no firm toll agreement with AIDEA for use of the road, but Trilogy factored a toll of $8.04 per metric ton of material hauled, up from $4.70 per ton in the pre-feasibility study, which reflects the change in the expected cost of the road. Overall, Trilogy expects the project would pay roughly $20 million per year in road tolls plus another $2.50 per ton in maintenance fees, according to Sanders. “We all know we’re going to be paying some type of toll,” she said. Local governments for villages near the road’s planned intersection with the Dalton Highway have formally opposed the road over concerns it will impact migrating caribou and could eventually be opened to the public — thus increasing hunting and recreational pressure — in areas relied upon for subsistence harvests. Critics have also questioned the economics of the toll road concept given the Arctic prospect is the only one in the region anywhere close to development-ready. AIDEA spokesman Karsten Rodvik wrote via email that authority and Ambler Metals officials are in continued discussions about funding the next phases of the road. “Based on preliminary estimates, and assuming a negotiated minimum annual assessment with Ambler Metals similar to the DeLong Mountain Transportation System, one mine could be sufficient to finance the toll road structure, Rodvik wrote. “Given the established access, AIDEA anticipates that over time, other mines within the district will be developed and opened, paying fees to use the road.” Giardini said a decision to break ground at Arctic would likely come shortly after what is expected to be a roughly three-year development period for the road, putting early work at the mine in the 2024-26 timeframe. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: Processors shelling out tens of millions for Covid-19 precautions

Alaska seafood processors are paying tens of millions of dollars extra to cover costs from the COVID-19 pandemic, and most of it is coming out of pocket. Intrafish Media provides a first, in-depth look at how costs for providing protective gear like masks and gloves, testing thermometers, extra staff to handle sanitizing demands between work shifts, and modifying worker lines for social distancing are playing out in the nation’s seafood processing sector. At Bristol Bay, for example, where around 13,000 workers from outside Alaska come to work on fishing boats and in 13 plants of varying sizes, it’s estimated that all major processors combined likely spent $30 million to $40 million on Covid-19 related costs during the two peak fishing months of June and July this summer. Alaska processors covered extra costs for putting up employees in hotels and other 14-day quarantine sites, as required by the state. That alone added up to an estimated $3,500 per worker. Seafood companies also paid for pricey charter flights to isolate workers from passengers on commercial flights. Most medium to large processors had medical professionals onsite for the duration, at a cost of $30,000 to $60,000, Intrafish said. Workers were tested multiple times for the virus, with costs amounting to $175 per test. Intrafish cited testimony by Silver Bay Seafoods CEO Cora Campbell at a virtual U.S. Senate committee hearing on July 29. “In the past several months, Alaska seafood processors have spent tens of millions of dollars implementing proactive health and safety protocols to ensure we are minimizing risks to Alaska communities, protecting our seasonal and resident workforce, and maintaining operations,” she testified. “The industry is taking on these costs out of pocket at the same time we are facing severe disruption in key markets and multiple pre-COVID cost burdens,” Campbell told the senators. “While a fraction of these costs may be reimbursed, we face significant uncertainty because there’s no specific congressional directive to support health and safety protocol costs for critical seafood supply chains.” Covid prevention measures have not been included so far in federal relief loans and funds. It is unknown if they will be added into a stimulus relief package Congress could eventually pass when it returns in September from a month-long vacation. Symphony of Seafood expands The call is out for products for Alaska’s biggest seafood bash: the Alaska Symphony of Seafood. The annual competition, now in its 28th year, showcases a wide array of new market-ready Alaska seafood items at venues in Seattle and Juneau. Seafood lovers get to sample the goods that are privately judged in several categories. And as part of the event’s expansion plans, more opportunities have been added. “This year, we expanded the product categories to feature whitefish and salmon categories in addition to food service, retail and Beyond the Plate, which features products made from seafood byproducts,” said Riley Smith, communications director with the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, host of the Symphony. The event also has added a special platform for Bristol Bay. “Additionally, we expanded the special awards category to include a Bristol Bay Choice which will be awarded by the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association to the best sockeye salmon product. And included in that will be promotional and marketing support from the BBRSDA team,” Smith said. Partnering with the fishermen-funded and operated BBRSDA will help Symphony winners grow their promotions and marketing, Smith added. Through savvy branding and marketing strategies, the Bristol Bay model has seen its sockeye salmon sales expand to over 2,000 U.S. retail outlets in just a few years. –“Down the line we hope to create more partnerships with retailers and in- store promotions for our winners, and we’re really trying to approach this from every angle to increase the positive impact of the Symphony for companies big and small,” Smith said. One of the most unique things about the Symphony competition is that it levels the playing field between the biggest seafood producers and the smallest mom and pops. Last year, for example, Bullwhip Hot Sauce by Barnacle Foods of Juneau was a triple winner at retail, the Juneau People’s Choice and the overall Grand Prize. Big Symphony wins have led to shelf space at CostCo and other major outlets for Alaskan Leader Seafood’s cod fish and chips meal kit, as well as a pet food deal with Purina for its Cod Crunchies dog treats made from fish trimmings. “The Symphony is recognized around the world as a spearhead of product development coming out of Alaska and the annual competition is a super great place to show off your favorite recipe,” said Keith Singleton, president of Alaskan Leader’s value-added division. “It may lead to e-commerce, retail, club store or food service companies that will carry your brand to consumers.” “It’s worked amazingly well for us,” he added. “Everyone thought we were just a fishing company, but in reality, we are a ‘seafood’ company. The winnings that we’ve enjoyed have landed us in some wonderful markets around the world. So go for it!” All top winners get a free trip to the big Seafood Expo in Boston in March and entry into its national competition. This year’s lineup of new Alaska seafood products will be judged in late November and top winners will be announced at Pacific Marine Expo in early December. The Symphony then replays in Juneau in February where more winners will be announced. Smith said even if the Expo or the Symphony events are upended by the Covid-19 virus, the show will go on. “Absolutely! There will be a judging and there will be awards and promotions to retail associated with the Symphony,” he said. Find Alaska Symphony of Seafood entry forms at www.afdf.org/ Deadline to enter is Oct. 6. Grant give backs American Seafoods is accepting applications for its Alaska Community Grant Program from the following regions: Kodiak Island, Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, Western Alaska Peninsula, Bristol Bay, Lower Kuskokwim, Lower Yukon, Norton Sound and regions north. Since 1997, American Seafoods has granted more than $1.7 million to Alaskan groups and programs through its regional programs. “Our goal is to provide assistance and financial support to organizations that are making a real difference in the communities where we operate,” company president Inge Andreassen said in a press release. The amount available for grant awards for this round is $45,000 to fund community projects such as food security, housing, safety, education, research, natural resources, cultural activities and other pressing social needs. The majority of grant awards will range from $1,000 to $7,500 each. Find applications at www.americanseafoods.com, or contact Kum Lynch at [email protected] or by calling 206-256-2659. The deadline to submit applications is Oct. 12.The grant recipients will be announced by the company’s community advisory board on Oct. 28. Seafood savvy sought The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, the state’s lone marketing arm, is seeking committee members who advise on strategic operations and selling of nearly every fish in the sea. ASMI, which is a public/private partnership between the state and industry, is guided by a wide range of stakeholders who provide market insights and strategies for outreach to more than 110 countries. “For example, we refer to one group as the species committee and they focus on issues specific to whitefish, salmon, shellfish. Their issues are all very different and they differ across Alaska, so we have representatives from those fisheries to guide us,” said Ashley Heimbigner, ASMI communications director. Other ASMI committees provide expertise on domestic and international marketing, communications and technical support. Deadline to apply for an operational or species committee seat is September 30.You can apply for more than one committee. Email applications to Sara Truitt ([email protected]) Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

GUEST COMMENTARY: Ballot Measure 1 is not a family affair: Vote no

I respect my brother Joe. Please don’t listen to him. My family has deep roots in Fairbanks, going to back to the mining days of the early 1900s. I worked on the pipeline starting in 1975, and know what boom and bust looks like. Trust me, we Alaskans should aim for boom. My brother Joe is going for bust. Like any family, we disagree on what is the best path forward for our state. My brother Joe is a retired legislator and attorney. He often appears in news articles talking about the need for Alaska to get more money for its oil. What he neglects to say is that he is really a “keep it in the ground” environmentalist who would like to see oil’s days in Alaska end sooner rather than later. When that viewpoint is understood, his support of Ballot Measure 1 makes more sense, because its passage would speed up that process. It won’t be pretty, folks. I stand with the majority of Alaskans who support our oil and gas industry and want to see it prosper and grow. And with all due respect to the oil companies and their CEOs, that support is not rooted in fondness for them, but rather their impact on us. Alaska would not be Alaska without decades of oil industry investment and economic activity they brought to the state, and continue to bring. As a safety specialist and laborer, I have had a front row seat in seeing how Alaska changes for the better when oil is discovered and produced. While the initial pipeline boom may be history, we have more bright days ahead if we get our act together and vote no on Ballot Measure 1. Our state is still in the grips of an economic crisis made worse by COVID-19. How anyone can think this is an ideal time to raise any industry’s taxes by 150 percent to 300 percent is crazy to me. Oil prices are still low, and there are fewer rigs working on the North Slope that at any time in our state’s history. This is a bad place to be, because we need those jobs and investment to boost Alaskans’ employment and opportunity. Chasing away our best chance for economic recovery with a punitive new tax is quite possibly the worst thing Alaska could do at this critical moment. The next time you see an editorial written by my brother Joe, please take it with a giant grain of salt. He committed his career to waging a strange, misguided war against the oil and gas industry, both as an attorney and legislator. He lost his seat because if it, thankfully. Don’t let his Green New Deal, anti-ANWR view of the world make Alaska’s economic situation even worse. If you want to see Alaska pull itself out of the economic ditch, and think more oil flowing through that beautiful pipeline of ours is a good thing, join me and vote no on Ballot Measure 1. Charlie Paskvan worked in Alaska’s oil industry for decades, including work on the Trans Alaska Pipeline and in Prudhoe Bay. He lives in Fairbanks. Family dinner conversations about oil and gas policy are part of the Paskvan tradition.

GUEST COMMENTARY: Perfect storm hitting Alaska Marine Highway System

Over the past 18 months, Alaska’s ferry system faced unprecedented challenges: a reduced budget, a strike, unanticipated mechanical and structural issues with five aging ships, and a global pandemic. This spring, as the pandemic hit, the Alaska Marine Highway System had four of those ships scheduled to enter service, a workable budget in place and expected sufficient revenue to provide reliable ferry service throughout the year. Due to the dramatic decline in revenue as commerce all but stopped, the financial impacts on AMHS have been severe. Because ticket sales support the AMHS operating budget, we’re now facing a shortfall of almost $45 million. This shortfall, caused by the pandemic, equates to a budget cut of the same amount. The resulting winter schedule is not what we expected to provide. It’s not what Alaska’s coastal communities consider to be a satisfactory level of ferry service. Last winter, the system was hit hard with unexpected mechanical issues. Now, our ships are in good shape, but there are not enough funds to operate them. When our draft winter operating schedule came out, there were some complaints that we didn’t provide enough time for comment. The reality is we accept comments year-round, and we frequently adjust our schedules to accommodate requests from communities. One point to keep in mind is that most of this year’s community and school events we build our schedule around have already been canceled. Right now, AMHS needs to finalize its winter schedule so travelers can begin making reservations for our October through April travel season. In addition to the budget issues we’re facing, pandemic conditions have added a whole new level of complexity to running our ships and keeping passengers and crew safe from another outbreak. I applaud AMHS for its outstanding response to the challenges created by COVID-19. It’s been incredibly complicated to coordinate everything, but we’ve managed to run the mainline route since late June without an outbreak. With the insidious menace of COVID-19, it’s not a matter of if, but when an outbreak will occur on an AMHS vessel, so we count every week of successful operation a blessing in these very challenging times. Our crew has done an exceptional job following protocol, and that’s been the key to continuing operations. A recent incident occurred aboard the M/V Matanuska when a group of passengers learned en route that they had been in close contact with a COVID-19 positive person before they boarded the ship. Matanuska’s crew followed protocol — the affected passengers were quarantined in their cabins with meals delivered for the duration of the voyage. When several of those passengers later tested positive for the virus, we promptly tested the entire crew. Thankfully, all 47 crew received negative results and Matanuska returned to service, but not without a one-week delay, considerable cost and lost revenue. What could have easily resulted in a shipboard outbreak and weeks of the entire ship in quarantine was averted by a quick and reasoned response from a well-trained crew. This pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives and will continue to do so for some time. The incident on the Matanuska is just one example of the commendable job AMHS is doing — they continued providing ferry service when it didn’t seem feasible. But in the midst of the pandemic, we have to accept the fact that fewer travelers mean less revenue, and reductions in service are required to keep the system afloat. At the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, we take our responsibilities seriously for all of Alaska’s communities – those on the road system, the 35 serviced by AMHS, and the 140+ that are neither on the road system nor on the ferry routes. The AMHS Reshaping Work Group has met regularly over the last six months, receiving input from a diverse group of stakeholders who either compete with, operate, or rely on our ferry system. I look forward to the work group’s final report, and to implementing fundamental changes to keep reliable ferry service running in Alaska for the long term. John MacKinnon is Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

GUEST COMMENTARY: Complicated tax policy should not be decided at the ballot box

The issue of what to do with oil taxes is once again before us. The question will be presented in the form of Ballot Measure One in November. While Alaskans have proven to be smart and savvy voters, I confess to a well-developed skepticism about putting complicated fiscal issues on the ballot for a simple up or down vote. For that reason, I intend to vote no – not because of the merits or because I have more insight into this issue than other Alaskans – but because the initiative process in this instance leaves too many questions unanswered. In my opinion, the paramount importance of oil taxation to the future of this state calls for a measure like this to go through the scrutiny of the legislative process. For sure, that process is messy; we’ve all heard the quip about the comparison to making sausage (perhaps an insult to sausage makers!). But in a democracy, it is the only way I know to ensure a rigorous analysis of important and complex policy choices. I have the privilege to know, and have worked with, several of the ballot measure’s sponsors, and I hold them in the highest regard. However, I do not believe they should replace the legislature as the primary crafters of state tax policy, and I respectfully disagree with their decision to skip the legislative process and to toss this issue straight to voters. Ideally, if Ballot Measure One were introduced as a bill – and I suspect there are legislators who support the measure – it would endure many hours, if not days, of hearings before several committees in both bodies of the legislature. There would be input from all stakeholders: representatives from the oil industry would state on the record how the initiative would impact their Alaska business; independent economists and experts would model the tax proposal to provide a third-party view of what the measure would actually do; proponents of higher taxes would explain and justify their reasons and clarify their intent; and members of the public would testify as to its pros and cons. It is admittedly a long and tedious process, but the give-and-take among stakeholders, and the additional analysis that accompanies such measures, invariably leads to a balancing of interests – including the public interest — resulting in a bill that is informed of the facts and capable of garnering the necessary support for passage. Some knowledgeable observers have criticized Ballot Measure One’s language as ambiguous and confusing. This, too, can be addressed through the legislative process with amendments to clarify or cure deficiencies and ambiguities in the text. If Ballot Measure One is passed, those issues will be left for the courts to decide, post-enactment – and without the benefit of any legislative record to assist in their analysis. The biggest elephant in the room today is the historic collapse of oil prices and the widespread economic hardship caused by COVID-19. In fairness to Ballot Measure One’s sponsors, I don’t believe this could have been predicted. Nonetheless, reasonable Alaskans must wonder about how the ballot measure will impact the oil industry in our state in light of these unprecedented events. Again, it may be my personal bias, but I have serious reservations about leaving an incredibly complicated and nuanced issue like oil taxation to the persuasion of sloganeering and sound bites. The legislative process is not pretty and it can be very frustrating, but that is how our system is supposed to work in my humble opinion—particularly when dealing with issues so important to the financial stability of our state. Given all these factors, I intend to vote no on Ballot Measure One. ^ Michael Geraghty served as Attorney General for the state of Alaska during 2012–14.

AOGCC considering revisions to well bonding requirements

State regulators under the Dunleavy administration are continuing to tweak bonding requirements for oil and gas wells overhauled just more than a year ago. The Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission held a brief public hearing Sept. 1 to take testimony on proposed changes to the bonding requirements that would increase the amount of time an operator has to post a given bond amount. The amended regulations would also allow the three-member commission to reduce the state’s minimum bond requirement on a case-by-case basis if a landowner requires a bond be posted to cover plugging and abandonment costs. The commission, which oversees technical drilling and other subsurface oil and gas industry matters and is chaired by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s former deputy chief of staff Jeremy Price, published the prospective changes following numerous appeals heard last winter from operators to the new requirements. Examining and repealing business regulations deemed burdensome or unnecessary has been a focal point of the Dunleavy administration. After nearly two years of hearings and deliberation, in May 2019 the AOGCC approved regulations that greatly increased the bond amounts companies with wells are required to post. When those bonding minimums were being considered, commissioners noted the amount the state requires well holders to hold for well plugging and abandonment costs hadn’t been updated for decades. They cited a 1991 Legislative Budget and Audit report that said the State of Alaska should update its minimum well bonding requirements then. At the time, the bonding requirements were $100,000 for one well and a minimum of $200,000 for multiple wells and a “statewide blanket bond,” which were the required amounts until the 2019 revision. The 1991 report concluded that an operator with a $200,000 bond then likely wouldn’t be able to cover plugging and abandonment costs. The new five-tier bond schedule requires those holding up to 10 wells to post $400,000 per well. Operators with between 11 and 40 wells must post a cumulative $6 million bond and the amounts gradually increase to $30 million for operators with more than 1,000 wells. Alaska’s largest fields, Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk River, each contain more than 1,100 well bores. Former AOGCC chair Hollis French — appointed by former Gov. Bill Walker and fired by Dunleavy for alleged poor work habits — said the effort to update the bond amounts was aimed particularly at small oil and gas companies after bankruptcies in the industry following the collapse of oil prices in 2014-15. Leaders of Malamute Energy, a small North Slope operator that holds two wells just inside the federal National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, testified in a January hearing that the company is in a rather unique situation that justified an exemption from the new requirements. Malamute’s minimum bond for the Umiat Unit that contains the wells had recently been increased by the Bureau of Land Management from $200,000 to $1.25 million, much greater than the $800,000 the company must eventually hold for the state, company President Leonard Sojka said at the time. While the vast majority of oil and gas development has historically been on state acreage on the North Slope and across the Cook Inlet basin, the industry — led by ConocoPhillips — is increasing activity in the NPR-A and the prospect of exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could lead to similar situations. Alaska Native corporations have also sought more exploration on their lands in recent years; some of that work — as with Doyon and Ahtna — has been done by the companies themselves but traditional oil operators have also signed agreements to explore on Native lands. The commissioners did not comment during the meeting and Price did not respond to follow-up questions in time for this story. Kenai Peninsula resident Jim White testified Sept. 1 that the state’s costly bond requirements prevent individual Alaskans from participating in the state’s oil and gas industry. White said in prior testimony objecting to the bonds that he holds subsurface mineral rights to 4,600 acres on the peninsula. “(A homesteader) can’t own that oil and gas until he gets the oil to the surface so when the bonding requirement gets so high, he’s being deprived of what he paid for,” White said in describing his situation. “The homesteader feels like he got a raw deal; he didn’t get what he paid for.” The proposed regulations would also take the number of installments operators can use to reach the required bond amount from four annual payments to seven. The second through sixth installments would be due each Aug. 16 “of the first five years following the first installment and must be a minimum of one-sixth of the difference between the operator’s level of bonding and, if required, security after payment of the first installment and the level required under (other regulations),” the proposed regulations state. John Hendrix, who purchased the Cook Inlet gas producer Furie Operating Alaska out of bankruptcy earlier this summer, submitted written testimony supporting the changes as long as they also account for a bond or other financial security an operator has with another state agency. Furie has set up a “sinking fund” with the Department of Natural Resources for dismantlement, removal and reclamation of the company’s offshore Cook Inlet platform. “Ensuring continued investment and production from Cook Inlet will allow the Railbelt utilities and the Interior to provide reliable energy for a sustainable economy,” Hendrix wrote. “We appreciate the Commission’s efforts to eliminate redundant financial responsibility requirements that are currently required by multiple State agencies.” The commission is accepting public comments on the proposed regulations through Sept. 10. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Interior Department sued over revised NPR-A plan

A coalition of environmental groups sued the Interior Department Aug. 24 urging a federal judge to halt implementation of the Trump administration’s plan to expand oil and gas opportunities in Northwest Alaska. The six state and national conservation organizations, including The Wilderness Society, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center and the Alaska Wilderness League allege Bureau of Land Management and Interior Department officials violated at least three longstanding federal laws in selecting a land-use plan for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska that would open more than 80 percent of the massive federal parcel to hydrocarbon development. The groups, led by the Anchorage-based nonprofit environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska, argue in-part that BLM Alaska leaders violated the foundational National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, by only conducting a cursory review of the impacts of additional development in the petroleum reserve. The agency also did not consider any management alternatives in the final NPR-A land-use environmental impact statement, known as the reserve’s integrated activity plan, meant to substantially increase protections for the reserve’s wildlife and aquatic resources — another NEPA violation, according to the complaint. To the contrary, the final EIS published in late June identifies a preferred alternative that would open more of the nearly 23 million-acre reserve to industry than was contemplated in any of the three action alternatives detailed in the draft review. The most industry-friendly management alternative discussed in the draft EIS would have opened 81 percent of the NPR-A to potential leasing and development, while the BLM’s preferred alternative in the final review would open 82 percent, or 18.7 million acres, of the reserve to leasing by industry. All of the alternatives in the final EIS would also reduce the size of the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area and eliminate the Colville River Special Area — parts of the reserve previously established to support local subsistence harvests and maintain habitat for caribou, waterfowl and other species — the complaint notes. The Obama administration finalized the current NPR-A plan in 2013, which made about 11.8 million acres available for leasing and roughly doubled the size of the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area to 3.6 million acres, with more than 3.1 million acres of the special area off-limits to leasing. Suzanne Bostrom, the Trustees for Alaska attorney who signed the complaint, said in a statement that the Trump Administration is doing everything it can to meet industry’s wishes with little regard for the impacts to locals and wildlife in the region. “BLM’s decision to launch an all-out assault on the western Arctic is completely at odds with its obligation to provide maximum protection for areas like Teshekpuk Lake and lands and waters essential to the health of western Arctic animals and people,” Bostrom said. She wrote via email that the lawsuit was filed before BLM has issued a record of decision finalizing its plan because of a clause in federal law requiring any complaint specific to an NPR-A leasing review be made within 60 days of publication of the final EIS. In unrelated cases, Trustees attorneys have successfully sued the Interior leadership twice in the past two years to have separate land exchange agreements meant to facilitate an emergency access road through what is now the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula. The firm is also leading another suit filed Aug. 24 against Interior officials over the administration’s plan to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in far northeast Alaska to oil and gas exploration. BLM’s preferred alternative for the NPR-A would open the entire 3.6 million-acre Teshekpuk Lake Special Area to leasing with limitations on activities and permanent facilities intended to limit impacts to wildlife. The area around the large lake, which sits in the northeast corner of the reserve, has become of particular interest to oil and gas industry advocates because of large Nanushuk formation oil discoveries made on nearby state land and within the NPR-A. Those discoveries led the U.S. Geological Survey in late 2017 to increase its resource assessment for the reserve to nearly 8.7 billion barrels of technically recoverable, undiscovered oil. A 2010 NPR-A assessment projected a mean resource estimate for the reserve of just 896 million barrels. The vast majority of the acreage currently under lease is held by ConocoPhillips, which is in the environmental permitting process for its large Willow oil prospect in the northeast portion of the reserve and is also working on smaller projects in the area. Expected to cost up to $6 billion to fully build out, the Willow project could produce upwards of 160,000 barrels of oil per day at its peak, according to the company. Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke first directed department agencies to reevaluate the reserve’s oil and gas potential as well as changes to the management plan in May 2017. BLM’s preferred management plan for the reserve includes elements from the range of alternatives analyzed in the draft EIS and was developed with input from cooperating agencies and stakeholders, according to the agency’s Alaska spokeswoman Lesli Ellis-Wouters. BLM officials expect the new management plan could help spur oil production of up to 500,000 barrels per day over the next 20 years with up to 250 miles of new roads and approximately 20 new drilling pads in the reserve under a “high development scenario,” according to the agency’s analysis. The complaint additionally alleges that BLM violated the 1976 Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act and related regulations by voiding many protections put in place for the Teshekpuk Lake area and doing away with the Colville River Special Area entirely. “The (NPRPA) instructed the Secretary of the Interior to designate any areas containing significant subsistence, recreational, fish and wildlife, or historical or scenic values as special areas and to provide ‘maximum protection’ for those values,” the complaint states. The alleged failure to fully analyze all of the impacts resulting from industry activity under the new management plan also violates the Administrative Procedures Act, according to Trustees attorneys. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

‘Nothing is for certain’ amid operating restrictions

In October 2013, Fat Ptarmigan opened its doors. After years spent working at bars and restaurants in Anchorage, co-owner and head chef Guy Conley was excited about bringing a “fast casual” dining option to the downtown scene. “There were a lot of fine dining options, but not many for someone looking for something casual,” says Conley. “No one was doing wood fired pizza when we opened and I couldn’t find a decent meatball in this town to save my life.” The restaurant opened to positive reviews and an overnight following. Diners loved the simple but delicious fare as well as the inviting ambiance of warm wood, exposed bricks, and a front row seat to watching Conley work the pizza oven. Less than a year later, the recession hit Alaska. “It definitely wasn’t an ideal time to open a restaurant,” says Conley. An opportunity, and a challenge Fast forward to early 2020. Fat Ptarmigan was still going strong, but downtown had changed since the restaurant’s early days. On the positive side, apartment buildings and condos being constructed were attracting new residents to the area and Conley felt like the Anchorage Police Department’s relocation to 4th Avenue was leading to decreased crime. New businesses were opening or expanding. On the negative side, Nordstrom, a downtown retail anchor since 1975, closed in 2019 and much of downtown business still depended on the visitor season and events that brought locals to the area. Conley says that even when the economy rebounded after the recession, people just weren’t eating out as much as they did pre-recession. Always on the lookout for ways to strengthen Fat Ptarmigan’s business model, a collaboration with the Double Shovel Cider Co. seemed like a good opportunity to diversify the restaurant’s offerings and co-mingle clientele, while taking advantage of underused space. For Double Shovel, it was a chance to have a downtown presence and easily connect with locals and visitors. Anchorage Cider House launched in February 2020 in Fat Partmigan’s south room, offering cider from Double Shovel on tap and in cans. Galen Jones, co-owner of Double Shovel, says that the collaboration with Fat Ptarmigan is grounded in shared values and a mutual appreciation of downtown. “A vibrant and thriving Downtown is good for Anchorage, and fortunately it’s on the upswing. We want to be part of developing an even more popular scene with increased activity, mixed use and residential buildings, help it be a place people want to hang out at all hours of the day,” Jones said. Jones’ plans for Anchorage Cider House included featuring ciders from around the world, educational tours spanning the cidery (located in Midtown) and the cider house, live music, special release parties, and Spain-inspired events serving cider directly from casks. Any other summer, and the Anchorage downtown restaurant scene would most likely be booming. But summer 2020 is unlike any other summer in living memory: it’s the summer of a global pandemic. A twist called COVID-19 By Anchorage Municipal Emergency Ordinance, restaurants and bars were closed to indoor dining from March 18 to May 11, and then again in August for a four-week reset meant to slow the rising numbers of COVID-19 in Anchorage. The closures have been brutal for businesses. “One bad week is hard to recover from,” says Jones. “And we’ve had months of bad, with no sustainable revenue. It was a big investment for us to open Anchorage Cider House, and if something were to happen to Fat Ptarmigan, we’d be up the creek without a paddle.” To get through the closures, Jones, Conley, and the rest of their team are focusing on new ways to reach customers. Conley says that third party apps like GrubHub and DoorDash are essential, but terrible in terms of revenue. “When we have a full dining room and can sell cider, wine, and beer, they’re okay. But now, when we’re relying on them, the fees they charge are devastating.” (Pro tip: if you connect to delivery apps from a restaurant’s website, the app waives the fees.) Both Jones and Conley say the federal Payroll Protection Program, or PPP, has helped, and are hopeful that State of Alaska CARES Act funds will soon be made available to businesses who received more than $5,000 from PPP (this has been proposed and will likely be approved soon). Conley says options like rent relief or delayed property taxes would be welcome. During a time when the Independent Restaurant Coalition estimates that as many as 85 percent of independent restaurants across the country may permanently close by the end of 2020, restaurateurs are looking for creative solutions. Getting creative Conly says that the Open Streets ANC initiative, organized by the Municipality of Anchorage and the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, is helping. “Downtown is like a ghost town, without the tourists and with the small number of people who live here. We’re not seeing a lot of foot traffic. But, we’re trying to get people to the outside seating and right now we’re only down 25 percent of our annual revenue, which is good compared to other restaurants I know.” The State of Alaska’s decision to allow to-go and delivery for alcohol is also helping. “We really focused on people picking up cans and growlers when we were first shut down,” says Jones. “Now with the ability to pick up cider combined with the open streets, we’re seeing revenues grow.” Conley found another way to reach customers, too: the Migrating Ptarmigan, a food truck selling Fat Ptarmigan fare. “It’s going well, and it’s another way to promote the business.” What does the future hold? “Right now we’re so preoccupied with the day-to-day and how to get people to come downtown, we haven’t really thought about how to get through the winter,” says Jones. “I wish I had a plan, but between running Double Shovel and keeping our full-time jobs, it’s tough to look further than a week into the future. But I know downtown in the winter is going to be really tough for everyone.” Conley hopes that indoor dining will return at least at 50 percent indoor seating capacity in the fall. Both like the idea that initiatives like Open Streets ANC and the EasyPark’s recently launched Operation Downtown Dine Out, which provides restaurant seating in parking spaces, might return next summer. “It’s so cool that there are all these options now with seating and shops, and it feels like a safe and fun place to be. You can get food and see live music, see friends while staying distanced, support local businesses,” says Jones. Neither is keen to predict too far into the future though. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned,” says Conley, “It’s that nothing is for certain.” Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for entrepreneurship, innovation, and small business. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, Vice Chair for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

Movers and Shakers for Aug. 30

Tasha Nichols was promoted to First National Bank Alaska Human Resources manager and appointed Human Resources officer. Nichols obtained a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Alaska Anchorage and a bachelor’s in human resource management from the University of Alaska Southeast. She is an accredited Senior Certified Professional through the Society of Human Resource Management. Nichols began her career with First National in 2016 with more than 20 years of local human resource experience. Alaska Behavioral Health announced several new staff members to its clinics in Anchorage and Fairbanks: Dr. Curt Wengel, child and adolescent psychiatrist; Kelsea Henry, chief financial officer; Christine Alvarez, director of Adult Services; and Sarah Koogle, clinic manager, Fairbanks Adult Clinic. Wengel completed medical school in south Texas. He went on to general psychiatry residency at Brooke Army Medical Center, the Veterans administration and University Health Systems before completing a child and adolescent fellowship at San Antonio State Hospital and Clarity Child Guidance Center. Originally from New Mexico, Henry joined the United States Army and served for 4½ years before being honorably discharged in order to pursue a calling in the healthcare industry. Upon completion of a bachelor’s degree in healthcare management, Henry joined Mountain Family Health Centers as their controller in 2017. In 2018, Kelsea joined Memorial Regional Health in Craig, Colo., as chief financial officer and graduated with her MBA in finance. Henry comes from White Mountain Regional Medical Center in Arizona where she was their CFO. She is currently pursuing her doctorate in business administration. Alvarez has more than 13 years of mental health experience and has served in a variety of leadership roles including Team Lead of Austin-Travis County Integral Care’s Expanded Mobile Crisis Outreach Team, Director of Multnomah University’s Counseling Center, and assistant executive director of the Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault Crisis Center of Warren County. Alvarez is licensed as an LPC in Texas, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and soon, Alaska. Alvarez will be overseeing adult services in both Anchorage and Fairbanks. Koogle has a master’s degree in clinical community counseling. Koogle has worked at AKBH since 2015 and was recently promoted to manager of the Fairbanks Adult Clinic. She has worked with a wide range of mental health issues both inpatient and outpatient care, adult and children.

Hospitals keep up with COVID cases, but staff feel strain

Alaska’s health care providers are following the number of new of coronavirus infections with trepidation as it trends upward while they try to manage the cases and urge people to take precautions. As the summer draws to a close, Alaska is watching its hospitalizations for coronavirus infections steadily tick up. As of Aug. 25, there were 40 coronavirus-positive hospitalizations in the state, with six others under investigation. That’s the most it has been since the pandemic began in March, and since June, hospitalizations have been regularly reaching new highs. Hospital capacity remains adequate for now, with just more than half of the inpatient beds in the state occupied as of Aug. 25, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Since the very beginning, officials have been taking on mitigation measures to try to keep hospitals and health care systems from being overwhelmed by COVID-19-positive patients. But as time goes on, hospitalizations have increased even as the overall infection curve seems to flatten and the state is heading into flu season and the start of school, when normal hospital occupancy goes up and staff becomes busier. That’s something health care executives are keeping a very close eye on, said Jared Kosin, the president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. As long as Alaska can continue to ride the wave, hospitals should be able to handle it. “Our single biggest concern is if hospitalizations keep growing and hospitals stay this busy, and we have this influx of COVID patients that we’ve never seen before,” he said. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was significant concern about hospitals’ capacity for high-acuity patients with COVID-19 who required intense care and ventilators within an intensive care unit. Increasingly, COVID-19-positive patients in Alaska are not having to go to the ICU. Of the 40 who were reported hospitalized with the virus, only 25 percent were in the ICU, Kosin said. Hospitals decide on staffing partially based on their daily count of patients. They have some flexibility based on the level of care patients need, with some constraints; for example, ICU nurses typically have additional training. Patients hospitalized with COVID-19 who need ICU care may also require the services of a respiratory therapist, which places additional needs on hospital staffing. Keeping staffing levels up has long been an issue for hospitals, between employees taking leave, schedule coordination, sudden outbreaks of disease, and now the need to quarantine staff who may have been exposed to the coronavirus. Kosin said hospitals are constantly working on their emergency response plans for massive demands on their services, such as in the case of a plane crash or natural disaster. So far, they’ve been able to absorb the additional needs into their operations without having to activate surge plans. There are definitely strains on staff, though. Donna Phillips, the labor council chair with the Alaska Nurses Association, said wearing the PPE all day every day is uncomfortable, in part because of temperature. Hospital facilities for staff, like break rooms, may not be set up for social distancing, either, and moving patients around from area to area with all the equipment and protective gear requirements are additional time burdens for nurses who were busy to begin with. “Those kinds of things I think are super challenging,” she said. “It’s very different, the heat that is generated by wearing a mask all day is kind of difficult. I’m fascinated by how hot you are.” There’s also been the additional burden of bedside care for patients who can’t have visitors, either. Phillips said that’s something nurses will make time for, as they want to provide good bedside care, but it’s not necessarily something they get extra time for. “It is more work for the bedside caregiver … to keep everybody around them safe, and without having visitors in the hospital, you’re the only one who can calm that patient down and (still) have one, two, three, four, however many patients you have, so the only person that’s with (the patients) are the people working in the hospital,” she said. “Now that falls to the nurse, the social worker, the case manager, whoever else has time to hold that iPad so they can have a 10-minute conversation with their family once a day.” So far, there has not been a critical shortage of staff, but there may be some burnout among nurses, she said, especially as hospital census counts have gone back up with other patients beyond coronavirus patients. If infections and hospitalizations increase again enough to reverse some of the state’s reopening, it could have serious financial consequences for hospitals. This spring, as a preventive measure to conserve beds for the pandemic, hospitals cancelled all elective surgeries and other procedures. Unlike emergency services and some other acute services, elective surgeries are major moneymakers for hospitals, and cancelling them for several months meant a major financial hit, particularly for smaller and rural hospitals that operate on thinner margins. Health care providers, including hospitals, did receive some pandemic relief money, but Kosin said the uncertainty looming around infections and hospitalizations is concerning. Kosin said ASHNHA and other health care agencies are encouraging the public to take precautionary measures like washing hands, wearing masks and social distancing expressly with the intent of keeping hospitalizations down to a manageable level, especially as flu season approaches. “The fate of this is really in every individual’s hands,” he said. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Hydro expansion another step in grid improvement

A small valve opened in a remote mountain valley at the head of Kachamek Bay sending a stream of water downhill that will eventually become low-cost power for places as far away as Fairbanks. The Alaska Energy Authority started flowing water through its West Fork Upper Battle Creek Diversion Project Aug. 25. The $47 million project will increase the amount of water in nearby Bradley Lake, in-turn increasing the practical power production capacity of the AEA-owned Bradley Lake Hydro Project by about 10 percent, according to AEA project manager Bryan Carey. Already the largest hydro plant in the state, Bradley annually produces about 380,000 megawatt-hours of power for the six electric utilities in Alaska’s Railbelt. The reliable supply of glacial-fed “fuel” stored behind the Bradley dam can be used by the utilities to manage the variable portion of their electric load and optimize operation of their gas-fired generators. “We want our gas turbines to be at the sweet-spot” for maximum efficiency, Homer Electric Association Board of Directors Vice President David Thomas said during a tour of the new facilities. “You could argue Bradley Lake is the largest battery in the state.” The Bradley Lake turbines are rated to produce up to 120 megawatts of power at any given time but constraints at both ends of the project have limited its average production to about 44 megawatts. And because Bradley power costs just 4 cents per kilowatt-hour to produce, according to AEA — making it some of the cheapest power in the state — more is better, said Tony Izzo CEO of Matanuska Electric Association. Izzo also chairs the Bradley Lake Project Management Committee. The hydro project is operated by HEA under a contract with AEA. Feedstock natural gas for the utility’s other power plants calculates out to a cost of about 8 cents per kWh. “It’s pretty easy to see the benefit (of Bradley Lake) when you look at the numbers,” Izzo said. MEA is in the middle of studies to see how much variable renewable power its grid can accept and identify some of the prime areas for renewable energy generation in its service area. The Battle Creek project will add about 37,300 megawatt-hours of production capacity to Bradley by diverting glacial water from the West Fork of Upper Battle Creek and piping it nearly 2 miles to the manmade lake; enough power to light about 5,000 Railbelt homes, according to AEA. The 60-inch high-density polyethylene pipe buried largely alongside the project access road installed to carry the water from the lake can handle up to 600 cubic feet of water per second, equivalent to a small river, according to Carey. The diversion stream was flowing at about 60 cubic feet per second, or cfs, on Aug. 27, he said. Being short and steep glacial drainages Bradley and Battle creeks do not have many salmon — which makes them good candidates for harnessing their water — but they do have some. AEA is required to keep an average minimum flow of 15 cfs in Battle Creek to maintain fish habitat. Carey acknowledged the project will likely change the fish habitat some; the stabilized flow is likely to benefit salmon such as kings that spawn mid-stream, but could challenge others. He said Battle Creek was finished on time, but slightly over budget — AEA previously pegged it at about $44 million — but Izzo noted it was completed within the parameters of the original financing plan and small overruns are often a fact of life for that type of work. “On a remote project in the mountains, that’s not exceptional,” Carey said. At about $16 million, the three miles of new road needed to reach the project accounted for approximately 40 percent of the overall cost of the work, which was led by Anchorage-based Orion Marine Contractors. AEA and utility officials noted the recent agreement to purchase of the 39-mile Soldotna-to-Quartz Creek segment of transmission line by the authority from HEA is another small step along with the commissioning of the Battle Creek project to spur more efficient power production and distribution Railbelt-wide. The “S-Q” transmission line was out of service for about four months last year following damage from the Swan Lake fire, which cost ratepayers to the north about $11 million by cutting off access to Bradley Lake and necessitating more gas-fired power. Even when the 115-kilovolt line is operational, it has “line loss,” or the amount of power lost during transmission, of about 40 percent at maximum capacity, according to AEA Engineering Director Kirk Warren. The goal is to eventually upgrade the S-Q line under AEA’s ownership with financial support from the utilities that will benefit. Warren estimated upgrading the S-Q line to 230 kilovolts would cost $800,000 or more per mile based on previous work, but it would also allow the utilities to access more Bradley power without losing nearly as much of it to the ether. “It’s part of the overall continued effort to reduce rates or keep rates down and increase the use of renewables,” Izzo said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

‘Nothing is for certain’ amid operating restrictions

In October 2013, Fat Ptarmigan opened its doors. After years spent working at bars and restaurants in Anchorage, co-owner and head chef Guy Conley was excited about bringing a “fast casual” dining option to the downtown scene. “There were a lot of fine dining options, but not many for someone looking for something casual,” says Conley. “No one was doing wood fired pizza when we opened and I couldn’t find a decent meatball in this town to save my life.” The restaurant opened to positive reviews and an overnight following. Diners loved the simple but delicious fare as well as the inviting ambiance of warm wood, exposed bricks, and a front row seat to watching Conley work the pizza oven. Less than a year later, the recession hit Alaska. “It definitely wasn’t an ideal time to open a restaurant,” says Conley. An opportunity, and a challenge Fast forward to early 2020. Fat Ptarmigan was still going strong, but downtown had changed since the restaurant’s early days. On the positive side, apartment buildings and condos being constructed were attracting new residents to the area and Conley felt like the Anchorage Police Department’s relocation to 4th Avenue was leading to decreased crime. New businesses were opening or expanding. On the negative side, Nordstrom, a downtown retail anchor since 1975, closed in 2019 and much of downtown business still depended on the visitor season and events that brought locals to the area. Conley says that even when the economy rebounded after the recession, people just weren’t eating out as much as they did pre-recession. Always on the lookout for ways to strengthen Fat Ptarmigan’s business model, a collaboration with the Double Shovel Cider Co. seemed like a good opportunity to diversify the restaurant's offerings and co-mingle clientele, while taking advantage of underused space. For Double Shovel, it was a chance to have a downtown presence and easily connect with locals and visitors. Anchorage Cider House launched in February 2020 in Fat Partmigan’s south room, offering cider from Double Shovel on tap and in cans. Galen Jones, co-owner of Double Shovel, says that the collaboration with Fat Ptarmigan is grounded in shared values and a mutual appreciation of downtown. “A vibrant and thriving Downtown is good for Anchorage, and fortunately it’s on the upswing. We want to be part of developing an even more popular scene with increased activity, mixed use and residential buildings, help it be a place people want to hang out at all hours of the day,” Jones said. Jones’ plans for Anchorage Cider House included featuring ciders from around the world, educational tours spanning the cidery (located in Midtown) and the cider house, live music, special release parties, and Spain-inspired events serving cider directly from casks. Any other summer, and the Anchorage downtown restaurant scene would most likely be booming. But summer 2020 is unlike any other summer in living memory: it’s the summer of a global pandemic. An twist called COVID-19 By Anchorage Municipal Emergency Ordinance, restaurants and bars were closed to indoor dining from March 18 to May 11, and then again in August for a four-week reset meant to slow the rising numbers of COVID-19 in Anchorage. The closures have been brutal for businesses. “One bad week is hard to recover from,” says Jones. “And we’ve had months of bad, with no sustainable revenue. It was a big investment for us to open Anchorage Cider House, and if something were to happen to Fat Ptarmigan, we’d be up the creek without a paddle.” To get through the closures, Jones, Conley, and the rest of their team are focusing on new ways to reach customers. Conley says that third party apps like GrubHub and DoorDash are essential, but terrible in terms of revenue. “When we have a full dining room and can sell cider, wine, and beer, they’re okay. But now, when we’re relying on them, the fees they charge are devastating.” (Pro tip: if you connect to delivery apps from a restaurant's website, the app waives the fees.) Both Jones and Conley say the federal Payroll Protection Program, or PPP, has helped, and are hopeful that State of Alaska CARES Act funds will soon be made available to businesses who received more than $5,000 from PPP (this has been proposed and will likely be approved soon). Conley says options like rent relief or delayed property taxes would be welcome. During a time when the Independent Restaurant Coalition estimates that as many as 85 percent of independent restaurants across the country may permanently close by the end of 2020, restaurateurs are looking for creative solutions. Getting creative Conly says that the Open Streets ANC initiative, organized by the Municipality of Anchorage and the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, is helping. “Downtown is like a ghost town, without the tourists and with the small number of people who live here. We’re not seeing a lot of foot traffic. But, we’re trying to get people to the outside seating and right now we’re only down 25 percent of our annual revenue, which is good compared to other restaurants I know.” The State of Alaska’s decision to allow to-go and delivery for alcohol is also helping. “We really focused on people picking up cans and growlers when we were first shut down,” says Jones. “Now with the ability to pick up cider combined with the open streets, we’re seeing revenues grow.” Conley found another way to reach customers, too: the Migrating Ptarmigan, a food truck selling Fat Ptarmigan fare. “It’s going well, and it’s another way to promote the business.” What does the future hold? “Right now we’re so preoccupied with the day-to-day and how to get people to come downtown, we haven't really thought about how to get through the winter,” says Jones. “I wish I had a plan, but between running Double Shovel and keeping our full-time jobs, it's tough to look further than a week into the future. But I know downtown in the winter is going to be really tough for everyone.” Conley hopes that indoor dining will return at least at 50 percent indoor seating capacity in the fall. Both like the idea that initiatives like Open Streets ANC and the EasyPark’s recently launched Operation Downtown Dine Out, which provides restaurant seating in parking spaces, might return next summer. “It’s so cool that there are all these options now with seating and shops, and it feels like a safe and fun place to be. You can get food and see live music, see friends while staying distanced, support local businesses,” says Jones. Neither is keen to predict too far into the future though. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned,” says Conley, “It’s that nothing is for certain.” Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for entrepreneurship, innovation, and small business. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, Vice Chair for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

Pages

Subscribe to Alaska Journal RSS