Back in March, I wrote and co-introduced a successful amendment to SB 241 providing broad authority for the state to issue operating grants to businesses adversely impacted by COVID-19. Unfortunately, rather than use this broad authority, the Dunleavy administration shackled the state's small business relief program with unworkable requirements. As a result, businesses in my district have been going bankrupt or are on the verge of collapse because the administration couldn't get small business relief out the door. For months, the administration dithered while over 90% of the $290 million in small business relief went unused. Within the last week, finally the administration eliminated the prohibition on businesses receiving relief that had received federal PPP loans. Now if you own a small business, you may have a real shot of obtaining relief that should have been accessible months ago.
The administration's small business relief was so bungled that the Municipality of Anchorage had disbursed more CARES relief than the Dunleavy administration, even though the state had hundreds of millions more dollars available. That didn't stop the Governor or his allies from trashing and politicizing the Municipality's aggressive response to COVID-19. While the state dithered, the city acted decisively to crack down on homelessness, extend small business relief, provide mortgage and rental assistance, and keep child care providers operational. That brings us to COVID public health policies, which mirror the state/local divide in competence and effectiveness.
COVID Public Health Policies:
Despite numerous oversight hearings at which experts have urged Gov. Dunleavy to issue meaningful COVID safety standards, the Governor has taken a passive approach to the pandemic. No mask mandate. No workplace safety standards. No standards for notifying Alaskans when they're exposed to COVID-19. As a result, Alaska's COVID infection rate is 15 times higher than in jurisdictions with effective policies to combat COVID-19. We only have to look as far as neighboring provinces in Canada to see the missed opportunity--restaurants and schools are open in British Columbia, and infection rates are less than 1/100,000 because the government has issued and enforces meaningful public health policies. Contrast that to Alaska, which has had infection rates of 15/100,000 due to the Governor and federal government's inaction. The result of this incompetence is clear: More deaths, more suffering, and devastation of our economy.
Anchorage's local government has stepped into the void, and thanks to the city's leadership our COVID infections have plateaued. When the Governor refused to issue a mask mandate based on overwhelming public health data, the Mayor did. When the Governor refused to issue COVID notification standards for Alaskans exposed to the virus, the Muni issued those standards. Due to the size of Anchorage relative to the rest of the state, local mandates (and corresponding policies from cities like Valdez, Juneau, and Seward) have been able to arrest the growth in COVID-19 infections statewide. But local action alone cannot bring COVID-19 infection rates low enough to let restaurants, schools, and other places of mass gathering re-open.
As prominent economists have noted, the lack of state and federal public health policies are killing our economy. Anarchy is a terrible response to a pandemic, and our state and the country at large are suffering unnecessarily because the Governor and President refuse to implement the most basic public health measures to combat COVID.
It is particularly frustrating that the Dunleavy administration won't take basic measures to improve safety in state offices. We've now hosted four State Affairs hearings (most in partnership with the Health and Social Services Committee) on workplace safety. Experts have told us that simple universal masking policies and HVAC upgrades could reduce the spread of COVID-19 in state facilities. Experts urged the state not to allow visitation at facilities like McLaughlin or the Pioneer Homes. Yet the state failed to implement universal mask policies, failed to upgrade HVAC systems, and was even re-opening facilities and ending telework arrangements for workers while COVID expanded across Alaska. We have now seen COVID spreading in McLaughlin, the Pioneer Homes, and DMVs. We can and must do better.