Several Alaska villages have introduced temporary policies restricting travel in and out in response to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
The Minto Village Council announced Saturday that it was closing the road to Minto, which is a spur off the Elliott Highway, from 3 p.m. Sunday until further notice. The road is now closed to incoming traffic and those in Minto wishing to leave will not be allowed to return for the time being.
The Akiak Native Community Tribal Council held an emergency meeting Friday and decided to implement a number of cautionary measures, which took effect Monday. These include no out of region travel except for health or legal reasons and no visitors from outside of the region unless they are providing essential emergency services.
Several other villages have implemented restrictions or bans on nonessential travel: Grayling announced a travel suspension of 30 days; Unalakleet has implemented a travel ban in and out of the village until May 1; Nulato has banned all travel except for emergencies for three weeks; and Galena is restricting nonessential travel until further notice.
By air or nothing
For some villages, air travel is the only form of access.
Fairbanks-based Wright Air Service has stopped flying passengers to “almost all” of the 18 rural communities it serves, according to Brett Carlson, who works for the air carrier. Measures implemented, he said, range from no nonessential travel, to no nonresident travel, to no travel in and out at all.
“Certainly, because of the travel restrictions to the villages, any guest going back and forth to the villages or people going back and forth to the villages, is almost nonexistent,” he said. “The number of flights we’re doing is down drastically.”
Carlson said Wright Air is working with Tanana Chiefs Conference to screen any person flying into any of the villages that TCC represents. These screenings involve asking passengers whether or not they’ve traveled out of state and checking for symptoms of the COVID-19 disease that is caused by the coronavirus.
“That’s something that TCC has initiated in order to prevent spread to the villages,” Carlson said. “TCC are doing a great job at a leadership level.”
Wright Air is still flying freight to rural communities on an almost daily basis. According to Carlson, this is particularly vital at present, given that panic buying is prevalent across all communities, urban and rural. As a result, Wright Air has been flying out larger quantities of freight than usual.
“I think there’s probably more residents in each village than there would be in non-pandemic times,” he said, adding that a lot of young people have returned to the villages from college or boarding schools.
To ensure that residents are still able to order supplies, Tanana Chiefs Conference, the Fairbanks-based nonprofit serving Alaska Natives, has sent out $7,500 in emergency funds to each of the 37 federally recognized tribes it serves.
“We’re not telling them how to spend it. We’re just telling them it’s to help with the COVID-19 outbreak,” said Victor Joseph, chief and chairman of Tanana Chiefs Conference. “Right now, the tribes that we could just deposit it in their banks are getting it. We’re mailing the others checks.”
An unsettled feeling
Among the villages attempting to prevent the spread of the virus is Ruby, which has a population of roughly 150. Katie Kangas, who serves as Ruby’s tribal chief said Monday was the last day that passengers were being allowed to fly in and out for non-essential reasons.
“We have sent letters to the airlines. Anyone who is leaving Ruby for emergency care, they will be allowed back in, but they will be on strict quarantine,” she said.
The village recently hired a new tribal law enforcement officer, who has been instructed to issue citations to anyone breaking quarantine. The officer is also being made available to help elders.
“We have been meeting the planes and giving people information about self-quarantine. If we see them around town, they will be cited,” Kangas said, though she noted she hasn’t seen many people out in public as she drives around town.
Additionally, those who are not residents of Ruby were asked to leave the village by Monday. Kangas said this was a suggestion, not a mandate.
“We would really like you to be in your own home,” she said, “If we were to shut down, you’d be stuck here and resources are going to be limited.”
In terms of resources, Kangas added that Tanana Chiefs Conference has “helped immensely.” She said the emergency funds sent to Ruby will be spent on basic supplies.
“Rice pasta, flour, cereal, powdered milk — just enough in case we are totally shut off. That could happen. We want to make sure we have supplies to last everyone a couple of weeks,” she said. “Tanana Chiefs has reached out to all their tribes, and that has helped immensely, because no one else is reaching out to us.”
Life in Ruby has changed a lot in the past few weeks. The main store, Ruby Commercial, is now only open noon to 4 p.m., customers are not allowed to use cash, and they have to wait to pick up their groceries outside the store. For both of the village’s stores, as well as the gas station, only residents are allowed to purchase goods.
“There’s not much to do in a village. People like to go out, they like to go to the store, they like to meet other people. Now, you can’t do that,” Kangas said. “Every person here is so unique, every person is a character here. So you look forward to going and meeting them and cracking jokes with them.”
Kangas also said that village leadership hasn’t been given specific guidance on what to do if the village had a sudden outbreak of the virus.
“We are being told to identify a place for that person, where they would have to really quarantine,” she said. “But you know what, leave it to your imagination. I don’t really know where we would put anyone if we had a big outbreak. That’s why we’re doing all we can to prevent the spread.”
Tanana is another Interior village restricting travel in and out.
Cynthia Erickson owns the only grocery store in the town and said she decided to restrict pubic access to the Tanana Commercial Company store last Friday.
“If I’m not well and I get this virus, then I cannot be of service to my village,” she said.
“We talked to our friend in Italy who said, ‘I beg of you to wear masks, to wear gloves, to sanitize’,” she said. “He also said, ‘I beg of you to shut your store down. If you don’t, you will be sorry’.”
Like the store in Ruby, Erickson is no longer accepting payment in cash and is leaving grocery orders just outside of the store for customers to pick up.
“Right now the streets are abandoned,” she said. “We don’t even have a plan. Hunker down and stay away from each other — how do you do that in a village?
“I hope and pray that we’re not too late,” she added.
Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.