Airport upgrade

Alaska Airlines employees work at a new baggage check station in June 2017 at the Kodiak Benny Benson State Airport.

Alaskans can now travel to Kodiak for any purpose, according to a new mandate issued by Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Monday. 

The mandate, which took effect Tuesday at 8 a.m., is part of the governor’s Reopen Alaska Responsibly Plan. It states that “intrastate travel between communities located on the road system and/or the Marine Highway System is permitted for all purposes.”

The mandate also states that “travelers may travel between the road system and Marine Highway System communities via any normal means of transportation, including vehicle, boat, ferry, aircraft, and commercial air carrier.”

Local officials expressed surprise at the new mandate on Tuesday evening, noting that the governor’s office did not provide advanced notice of the change, which permits non-essential travel to Kodiak Island for the first time since March 28, when the governor introduced a ban on all non-essential travel between Alaska communities to prevent the spread of the virus.

“The EOC (Emergency Operations Center) is concerned about rushing everything,” said Kodiak EOC spokesperson Francis de la Fuente. “This is something that they released last night effective this morning. To be honest, everybody was kind of surprised. We knew it was coming, but not this quickly. All we can do now is hope that Kodiak residents are resilient and follow safety precautions.”

De la Fuente said the EOC is still prepared to respond to any sudden uptick in COVID-19 cases in Kodiak. The community preparations for a possible outbreak have included setting up a remote care site in the North Star Elementary School Gym, a drive-thru testing site in the East Elementary parking lot, and a reserve housing facility for homeless people. 

“We are not removing any setup that the EOC or the medical field has done,” de la Fuente said. 

As of Tuesday, 474 COVID-19 tests had been conducted for Kodiak residents, according to figures reported by the Department of Health and Social Services. 

Kodiak has seen a rise in commercial air travel to the island, de la Fuente said. The EOC is continuing to monitor travel to Kodiak associated with the upcoming summer fishing season. De la Fuente reported that all vessels in the Kodiak harbor have complied with the mandatory harbor use agreement. 

“We appreciate that Kodiak residents and Kodiak fishermen are taking this seriously, even though we are opening Alaska,” he said. More than 70 businesses in Kodiak have submitted mitigation plans as they reopen for in-person services. 

“The community and the businesses want to make everybody happy,” he said. “The self-policing part is working because of everybody’s cooperation.”

De la Fuente, a lieutenant in the Kodiak Police Department, said KPD will not be involved in enforcing the coronavirus-related health mandates, and that all violations relating to COVID-19 will be directed to the state for investigation.

“There are some people that aren’t comfortable wearing masks,” he said. “The main thing to remember is to try to protect ourselves and try to understand how others feel.”

While the state still requires all out-of-state travelers to complete a mandatory 14-day quarantine, de la Fuente said the Kodiak EOC has not been able to keep track of the number of out-of-state travelers coming to the island. All travel declaration forms are submitted electronically to the state, and are not shared with local authorities. 

Dunleavy said on Monday that discussions about the possibility of lifting the mandatory quarantine for out-of-state travelers will take place this week, and that he will likely make an announcement about it on Friday. 

Aimee Williams, executive director of Discover Kodiak, said the possibility of intrastate travel is “great news” for Kodiak tourism businesses.

“This is nothing but good for our businesses as long as people feel comfortable traveling,” she said, adding that people may still hesitate about unnecessary travel despite the new mandate.

“One of the problems is uncertainty. I just hope Alaska can keep its curve in the current state. Hopefully, everyone will continue to do their social distancing and we can open safely.”

The city of Kodiak is not the only community in the region that is served by the Alaska Marine Highway System. Both Ouzinkie and Port Lions, remote communities with populations of fewer than 200 each and no on-site medical services, would be included in the mandate, since they receive regular service from the M/V Tustumena. 

However, Port Lions Mayor Dorinda Kewan said on Tuesday that the community is “not changing our expectations right now.” Those expectations include a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all non-resident travelers in the city of Kodiak before proceeding to the remote village.

The Kodiak Area Native Association is also offering testing to their patients who are traveling to remote communities, regardless of whether they present with COVID-19 symptoms. 

Other small communities in Kodiak, including Old Harbor, Larsen Bay, Akhiok and Karluk, do not receive ferry service and are not included in the new relaxed guidelines.

According to the mandate, “all travel to or from a community off the road system or the Marine Highway System Is prohibited, except as necessary for critical personal needs and the conduct of essential services/critical infrastructure.”

While in-state travelers can now visit the island freely, the commercial airline service to Kodiak remains limited to one Alaska Airlines flight per day, Monday through Friday. Ferry service to and from Kodiak is expected to begin June 3, after a five-month service hiatus. 

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