Soon after signing House Bill 76 on Friday, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy ended the state's COVID-19 disaster declaration, saying the state is in such a good position he doesn't need emergency powers bestowed by the Legislature through the newly signed measure.
Alaska joins Michigan and Wisconsin as the only states to have ended their disaster declarations.
"Alaska is in the recovery phase where an emergency declaration is no longer necessary," Dunleavy said in a prepared statement. "Our systems are fully functioning with vaccine distribution, adequate testing, and health care capacity. It is important our focus remains on getting Alaska's economy back on track and welcoming summer tourism throughout our great state."
Dunleavy acted on the recommendation of state Department of Health and Social Services commissioner Adam Crum, who concluded in a memo to the governor on Friday that the emergency disaster declaration — which was enacted on March 11, 2020 and expired on Feb. 14 — is no longer necessary because it affords more powers than are currently needed to control the pandemic.
Alaska's daily case counts have for months hovered between 100 and 200 cases per day. Virus-related hospitalizations are consistently between 30 and 50 per day, according to DHSS data last updated on Friday.
"While COVID-19 is still present in Alaska, the urgent nature of the pandemic has passed and we are no longer anticipating the widespread emergency that Alaska faced earlier in this pandemic," Crum wrote.
(The disaster declaration — which was enacted on March 11, 2020 and expired on Feb. 14 — provided Alaska officials with powers that were no longer needed to navigate the pandemic successfully, Crum said in a Friday afternoon press conference.)
Crum said in a Friday afternoon press conference that during the time the disaster declaration was in place, “we have actually been able to build up our infrastructure, and we worked with the Legislature. We see what other states have as a model for this kind of public health emergency power, which allows for the health department to continue work with communities and municipalities, with hospitals to continue this response."
Although HB 76 provided for an extension of the disaster declaration until the end of the year, it contains a provision that the governor can void the disaster declaration under specific circumstances.
“If the (DHSS commissioner) certifies to the governor that there is no longer a present outbreak of novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) or a credible threat of an imminent outbreak of COVID-19, 5 the governor shall issue a proclamation that the public health disaster emergency identified in the declaration issued by the governor on January 15, 2021, no longer exists as of a date determined by the governor,” states the legislation.
This is the provision used by Dunleavy to end the disaster declaration on Friday.
In the place of the disaster declaration is a new public health emergency order, which gives DHSS Commissioner Crum "very prescribed" emergency powers under Section 4 of HB 76, Crum said.
"Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the commissioner of health and social services may declare a public health emergency if the commissioner determines that the Department of Health and Social Services must take action to protect the public health," the section reads.
According to Section 4 of HB 76, this includes "providing public health services or enforcing existing health laws, as part of the state's response to the ongoing pandemic related to the novel coronavirus disease."
HB 76 also repeals some sections of the disaster declaration through the end of 2021, including those related to Dunleavy's ability to exercise emergency powers, regulations of the availability of telehealth services without in-person examinations (in some cases), worker's compensation for on-the-job infections and the regulation of professional licensing.
With the signing of HB 76, Alaska qualifies for large sums of federal stabilization funds, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits and Medicare relief. The bill also provides liability protection for businesses in the case of positive coronavirus cases, if the businesses are not in violation of existing ordinances or were "grossly negligent."
"This is something that has never existed in the state of Alaska before," Crum said.
A Friday statement from Gov. Dunleavy's office stated that, "with the signing of HB 76 and then ending the disaster declaration, Governor Dunleavy is allowing the acceptance of federal COVID relief funds without risk of chargeback to the state treasury."
"Some estimates placed the chargeback costs in 2021 of $100 million," the release continued. "The legislation also ensures the uninterrupted continuation of the state's vaccine distribution and COVID-19 management programs, which includes enhanced SNAP benefits to Alaskans with food insecurity."
Dunleavy initially passed the state's disaster declaration on March 11, 2020, just days prior to the first novel coronavirus case reported in the state. The declaration was renewed for 30 days three times November, December and January, before finally lapsing on Feb. 14, 2021.
After that declaration expired, there were no emergency health powers in place specific to Alaska, although the United States continues to remain under the national Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.
Without a public health emergency or a disaster declaration in place since mid-February, Alaska's organizations had been "acting in good faith in response to COVID-19 on request of the government," Crum explained.
"We were operating without anything, there was no disaster declaration," Crum continued. "There was no public health emergency as it is in place right now. And so what this does is it actually provides a little bit more certainty ... not so much for the state side, but to our providers."
"We've had a lot of communities, we've had a lot of clinics and hospitals step up and act in good faith without actually any of the protections in place without the liability aspects, without the ability of moving vaccines around," he added.
Crum credited the disaster declaration with establishing valuable infrastructure — such as testing centers and vaccination procedures — that can now be used to guide Alaska through the rest of the pandemic without those powers remaining in place, which he said would be beneficial to Alaskans.
"The disaster declaration became a bad word," Crum said, referring to the term as "stigmatized." "And this became something where people automatically will have a visceral response to it."
Coupled with Alaskans' feelings on the subject, Crum said that the declaration gave a slew of unnecessary powers to the state.
"And when we really evaluated where we are at, is this the same situation we were in in November, December?" Crum continued. "And it absolutely is not. Our hospitalizations at that point in time were about 150. Right now we're between 30 and 45. And so we've definitely changed the situation."
Crum also added that there was mental stress associated with the declaration for Alaskans.
"When you look at just the overall exhaustion rate from a public health and holistic perspective, being under a disaster declaration, knowing that there's looming powers of authority out there, this is something we just want to show Alaskans that ... we understand that we've all sacrificed together," Crum said.
Michigan and Wisconsin, according to Crum, are the only two other states in the country to drop their disaster declarations.
After leaving behind its disaster declaration, Michigan weathered a COVID-19 outbreak — something that Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, expressed concern about repeating in Alaska.
In a prepared statement from the Alaska House Coalition, Zulkosky likened Dunleavy's ending the declaration to "following in the footsteps of Michigan's pandemic response, an approach that led to the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the country as young, healthy Americans are filling hospital wards and the vast majority of people remain unvaccinated."
"While we are all ready for a return to normalcy, today's action could have very consequential actions," said Zulkosky in the statement.
Some state legislators expressed concern over the expiration of the declaration on Friday. Telehealth services were expanded and made easier to access under the original disaster declaration – something that changes with HB 76.
House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, said in a prepared Alaska House Coalition statement that the legislators worked with health workers, hospital staff and business owners to develop those tools.
"Unfortunately, the governor opted for politics over policy and decided to gamble with the health of Alaskans and with our economic recovery," Stutes said in the statement.
Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, posed concern about the impact of virus variants and an incoming number of unvaccinated visitors who will be eligible for free coronavirus inoculations once arriving in the state (effective June 1).
"I applaud the governor's leadership over the last year, but am dumbfounded by a unilateral move to eliminate tools we may need during a busy tourism and fishing season that will attract thousands of visitors," Edgmon said in the Coalition statement.
Daily News staff writers Raegan Miller and Scott Bowlen contributed to this story.