By Gretchen Wehmhoff
Last week Skagway was among three counties or boroughs in the United States who had zero COVID-19 cases. That was last week.
Since then, nine cases have been identified by Dahl Memorial Clinic (DMC) and Skagway is starting its second seven-day shelter-in-place in two weeks.
After the first case was announced Thursday, Oct.15, the Skagway Emergency Operations Center (EOC) initiated its response protocol. Skagway started an immediate shelter-in-place for seven days.
Parents’ phones started ringing. School was abruptly dismissed and children headed out the door; their backpacks filled with textbooks, gym shoes and laptops.
Facebook sites filled with posts announcing temporary business closures and new shelter-in-place hours for curbside pickup or delivery.
First Presbyterian Church pastor, Ryan Mandeville, took to Facebook to advise his congregation that services would be live streaming. St. Therese announced their church would be closed for the next two weeks. Skagway was hunkering down.
On Friday, a second case was reported, on Saturday a third. Skagway Hardware announced on Facebook that an employee has tested positive and they would close temporarily, citing community safety.
“Our employees will be getting tested and we will reopen after we receive some negative results,” said Jason O’Daniel.
Later that day, DMC reported it had received permission from the third positive coronavirus case to release his name.
Mike O’Daniel from Skagway Hardware decided to share his identity in an effort to assist in contract tracing.
“I feel great. Never did feel bad,” he said.
O’Daniel was asymptomatic and had no idea he had been infected. After the test, he agreed to go public since he had been back to work for a week.
“I just felt I owed it to the friends and customers. The faster you can get it done, the faster you can get a perimeter set up around it,” he said.
O’Daniel says he thought about the people he had been around who tested positive and others who didn’t.
“It seems to hit and miss,” he said.
O’Daniel said he went to the Skagway Traditional Council/SEARHC testing and received a negative result before he headed to Anchorage to help his son. He tested negative again when he returned. That was two weeks before his positive test on Oct. 16.
The hardware store reported that the rest of their employees all tested negative and the store reopened for curbside delivery on Tuesday. Masks are now mandated. They weren’t required by the store before the outbreak.
On Saturday, two more cases appeared. The last two were not considered community spread. The total was up to seven.
The EOC’s plan for a COVID-19 infection in the community has three main scenarios. Scenario C involves community spread of the virus. It was that contingency which was put into place on the first day.
The plan states that businesses and municipal facilities will be closed to public access while allowing curbside pick-up and delivery services only for non-critical businesses. For critical businesses, masks are mandatory.
Critical businesses are defined by the EOC as: Alaska Seaplanes, Fairway Market, Grizzly’s, the post office, Skagway Hardware, You Say Tomato, Wells Fargo Bank and those businesses defined as critical by Res. No. 20-11R.
After the seven-day shelter in place, critical businesses may open for public access by appointment with an approved mitigation plan. Businesses may request a determination defining it as critical or non-critical from the borough manager.
Sheltering in place means no group gatherings, residents should stay home with the exception of working in critical jobs, seeking health care or fresh air without contacting others.
On Friday, Oct. 23, one day short of the seven days, the shelter-in-place was extended until Halloween morning. An eighth and ninth positive case was reported – the cases were determined to be community spread.
Mayor Andrew Cremata said Skagway needs to get through the outbreak. He emphasized that how the town handles this situation is imperative if cruise lines are to return in 2021.
He referred to recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changes that have given power to the cruise companies to determine COVID-19 protocols at ports of call.
“It’s better to show [cruise companies] that the community can support each other and come together,” he said. “The caveat is that everyone needs to get on board.”
Cremata pointed out that no cruise ships next summer translates to no economy and he is concerned that another summer like 2020 would devastate Skagway.
“We can talk all day long, but [controlling the outbreak] is the only way this town survives.”
The EOC meets several times a day, according to spokesperson Cody Jennings. She said the community has been supportive of DMC and staff. The Red Onion delivered pizza. Community members brought food to employees who were working long hours.
Jennings was pleased how businesses and the school closed so quickly.
“Everybody really came together,” she said.