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KUCB Interviews Unalaska City Manager And Mayor On Coronavirus Preparations

Berett Wilber

Mayor Vince Tutiakoff Sr. and City Manager Erin Reinders spoke with KUCB's Caroline Lester about how Unalaska is preparing for COVID-19. 




KUCB: I wanted to start with the flight situation. As you, and I think all of our listeners, now know, RavnAir has stopped flying to Unalaska. They recently filed for bankruptcy. And I'm wondering, first of all, one of the the federal programs that helps communities like ours, where we only have one commercial airline serving us, qualify as essential air services, which basically means the federal government will help pay for sort of subsidizing flights to any one of those essential air service communities. I was wondering, why aren't we an essential air service?



REINDERS: I'll jump into that. That's been my life for the last six months now. So basically we are trying. So there's lots of nitty gritty details when it comes to essential air service and that program. And a long time ago when that program first developed, we had been identified as an essential air service community. The fact is, for the recent history, we haven't been required to use that trigger because there has been commercially viable flights coming in and out of Unalaska. So right now, over the course of the last several months, I've obviously made points of contact with EAS professionals in the Departments of Transportation, both statewide and and on the federal level. I mean, I'm kind of trying to pick their brains on how the process typically works and should be working right now. And in how it typically works is that when airlines cease service to a community, they are required to notify the Department of Transportation of that action. In some cases, because Unalaska is already an essential air service community as identified previously, that should be able to trigger an RFP—a request for proposals—on the part of the Department of Transportation to get the level of service for that community. And again, in theory, when that happens, that airline should have been required to continue their service for 90 days after they announce. So in this case, that's not the order that's happening at all. So we've got an airline that has stopped service at the same time as they have claims filed for bankruptcy protection, which is normally what happens. Usually people file for bankruptcy protection and then continue service. So they've done that. They've stopped service, they've filed for bankruptcy protection. And they have not formally notified D.O.T. saying that they have stopped service. Instead, they are saying that they paused service. So I am working very diligently with our lobbyists and talking with DOT, advocating on behalf of the community that this is the second time now that this has happened to our community and it's not a sustainable way for us to be operating. So basically, we're trying to get a position where the city can trigger that RFP to be issued. And again, not that that's still not a magic wand to make service start, but it certainly is a step to help it start. Letters have gone out already to our congressional delegation on the federal side because ultimately this is a federal U.S. D.O.T. program.



KUCB: Great. Thanks so much. And so you are exploring getting essential air service back on. Is there anything else you're doing more immediately to work on the air situation, like potentially working with charter companies or anything else?


REINDERS: So not working with charter companies directly. I don't have plans right now to be opening up the charter business as the city entered into last fall. The fact is the environment is extremely different right now. We are in the midst of a public health crisis. I do acknowledge that essential travel is still necessary. Pregnant women still need to get off this island to go and give birth. We still need to get transport critical workers. I've also included that message in the letters to the congressional delegation. I've also have e-mail that on the state side to our state representatives of that challenge. And I'm also working with trying to connect with Alaska Airlines. Marilyn Romano and I have been playing some text tag of trying to figure out how that key piece they've announced recently, obviously, that there are working on plans to fly to Cold Bay and then develop some scheduling. So I'm trying to figure out how that's working and what we might be able to do as a community to help facilitate that and encourage that test.


TUTIAKOFF: Also, in regards to the charters, there's a process that's being required to follow for the charters, similar to the commercial flights, they're going to be checked at the point of origin and checked again in Anchorage. And once they do make it this far, they're required to a 14-day quarantine. Those that are flying on into say Akutan, for instance, will be held in a separate facility and not allowed to mingle with the community. And they will be transported as soon as possible from Dutch to Akutan. And from Akutan to Dutch is a similar process. They're checked at Akutan before they even leave. They have a temperature [check]. They're staying in Akutan if that happens and so we have we have a plan on how to deal with the passengers.


KUCB: Great. So charter flights will be still screened by those individual charter companies.


TUTIAKOFF: That's what we're requiring and we will be discussing that at the city council meeting next Tuesday, discussing the changes that may happen, furthering our conditional use of being able to be in the community.


KUCB: Great.


REINDERS: So I'll jump in. More specifically, we're exploring some options on recognizing that the charters are now coming in. I think it was last week or so, we began greeting arriving flights. Department of Public Safety personnel is greeting those individuals, communicating information as far as our quarantine requirements. So we are exploring some options, now given charters. Right? That's a little bit more complicated to be tracking those flights. So we're exploring ways on how we can improve that communication flow. So perhaps that's requiring or reaching out to the charter companies, getting manifests or their flight plans so that we can ensure that that we've got people there to help communicate what is required. And obviously as part of our EOC structure, our Emergency Operations Center, we have a liaison officer and she's been in communications with several of the charter companies, you know, making sure they've got a solid understanding of what we're looking for. And they've offered their assistance to help spread the word of what's required.


KUCB: Great. And so while we're on the subject of air travel, uh, I know that the National Guard and the Coast Guard are both available potentially if we need mass evacuations of people who might be sick and need to go to Anchorage. Do we know how big those planes are or the maximum number of people [who] can get off this island at one time?


TUTIAKOFF: Coast Guard has one C-130 airplane their capabilities at this time are being studied for Unalaska. In similar places they can probably carry seven or eight people onboard.


KUCB: So seven and eight on the Coast Guard plane that can land here in Unalaska.


TUTIAKOFF: These would these would be people that are in dire need of hospitalization. These are not people that are evacuating the island. So, you know, you have a room. You'd have to have a lot more room for people that are in real dire, dire straits.


KUCB: Sorry, I didn't totally hear that. Are you saying that that the Coast Guard plane for seven and or eight people is not for people who need to be evacuated if they need access to an ICU?


TUTIAKOFF: I've said that for people that are in dire need of medical attention. These are the people that need to be in a hospital that we can't hold here in Unalaska in our clinic. And then they'll be available, the Coast Guard or National Guard to come out to Unalaska.


KUCB: Great.


REINDERS: I'll jump in. So I basically, you know, I think we can all acknowledge that we've got an amazing clinic here in the community, but there's certainly limited capacity. So if the needs of patients exceed the ability to for the clinic to care for them effectively here, yes, you do have the Coast Guard presence as a way to to take those patients and transport those patients to additional supportive care in Anchorage. And Air National Guardsman, I think the mayor was saying, and I don't know this, but the mayor was saying that that it appeared that seven or eight passengers would be able to be transported on the Coast Guard plane. And then I was just on the phone earlier this morning with Air National Guard folks. And I didn't ask that question. That's a good question. I suspect the clinic knows. The clinic has been in communications with those parties as well. You know, and that's of course in addition to the smaller medevac planes that we're obviously more familiar with.


KUCB: Great. And so one of the things that I'm wondering is what will the city do when the first case finally shows on the island? Are there any additional steps that can be taken to encourage social distancing or anything of that nature?


REINDERS:  I'll jump in. I mean, I think, you know, obviously, I think we've all experienced this as a continually and quickly evolving situation. Right now, frankly, what I was just doing right before this call, I was kind of trying and working with our attorneys and preparing for potential next steps that the council might consider taking to further safeguard the community. I would imagine those conversations would continue and, you know, and might expand slightly based on the change of circumstances locally and as well as in response to the ever-updated governor's mandate.


KUCB: Great.


REINDERS: A lot of well, a lot of those decisions are made in partnership with the clinic. And, you know, their recommendations as far as the public health emergency, you know, their expertise is certainly valued in these discussions.


KUCB: So one of the things that is unique about Unalaska is that a lot of the town is considered an essential service. A lot of people work in education or for the local government or in industry or, you know, adjacent to industry, and lots of people are still going to work. So can either of you comment on if any of these social distancing practices can be expanded to workplaces or sort of how the city is thinking about the fact that most of the town is still pretty mobile.


REINDERS: If I'm understanding the question correctly you're trying to address the fact that that most of this town is critical. So most businesses are open and operational. I will jump in and perhaps the mayor has has other things to add. So a lot of the critical businesses have already been required by the state to submit plans to the state on how they are addressing and reducing and mitigating the spread of COVID throughout their workplace and throughout the communities in which they operate. So that's one thing that's happened on the state side. Locally, [what] we could we could explore, you know, is how to communicate those plans to others. And I know KUCB, you yourself, have already done some great reporting on what local businesses are doing. So we're kind of exploring some of those options, perhaps, you know, sharing those in a public forum or, you know, posting some actions that are being taken to protect employees and members of the public, posting those in a public location. So, you know, citywide, we've already gone down to minimal staffing levels and the staggered schedules in order to maintain social distance to you as we do operate. And I know that other other facilities and organizations have done the same.


KUCB: Mm hmm. Awesome. I'd actually love to ask a little bit more about those plans, if that's okay. So does this mean that the city has access to all of the safety plans that these individual essential businesses have been required to submit to the state?


REINDERS: That's a great question and not that I'm aware of, and I know that you have asked me that question before. So, you know, I think we can request those. Some have been provided. Your larger question there was what are the plans?  Yes. So that we're still trying to figure that out. As far as I understand, their proprietary nature of some organizations have provided those and some have not.


KUCB: Great. So I just want to confirm. Sorry. Go ahead.


TUTIAKOFF: Yeah, there's been a lot of like fishing, Pacific seafood processors, the groundfish forums, the At-Sea Processors Association Alaska, Bering Sea Crabbers and also the catcher-processors have made their information on how they're dealing with the coronavirus and the plans that they have in place. It's quite extensive. Quite detailed in regards to catcher-processors. And we see them all the time in here unloading and picking up groceries and going back out. So their information, as has been put out already. We received a letter from the At-Sea people. An open letter to the community.


KUCB: But that that was an open letter and not these specific safety plans. Does a city have access to their specific safety plans? Do they submit that to local governments?



REINDERS: At this point, there has been no formal process of submitting those to local governments. 


KUCB: OK. So it seems like, and I just want to confirm, it seems like these safety plans go through the statewide government. And then are considered by them, given Okays or no's or vetoes or whatever, and then they go back to the companies. But the city does not have a say in the safety plans. 


TUTIAKOFF: You know, I would think that once the state or the health and social services people have approved these plans that they would be available to the community. But we've not seen that from state. That's our situation.


KUCB: Yeah. So Mayor Tutiakoff, I think this is a this is a question for you. How do you feel like we're doing as a community when we talk about social distancing and preparation for the virus?


TUTIAKOFF: I'm glad you asked that question. I have heard recently that the social distancing has not been properly followed by some groups, and that's primarily the youth. I don't know why. Maybe they're not thinking. Maybe they're thinking that they're not all involved, but the people they are around at some point are. And it's very important, I think I mentioned this the last time, that we get this message out. And we're working on that through the teen group controlling group with PCR and hopefully they can get this message to them. And as far as social distancing, I do see every now and then, some groups in the community coming in that are not. I think it's upon every one of us as a community, to remind these these people that they need to be socially distant and they need to have a covering. And they need to abide by the rules that the city has put out and that every community member is trying to follow. If you don't need to go out, my advice is don't go. If you have got a clinic, of course, call in to the clinic. You have to go to a store, try to get somebody from you or your family member or someone else if you're an elder, to go to the store for you. And if you go to a store, just send one into the store. One member of your family. Those kinds of things help to flatten the curve. And it's proven in other communities that this works. We just have to get that word out to all the people that as much as possible, we need to abide by these guidelines.


KUCB: Great. Thank you. So just one last question. The Donlin Gold Mine just shut down. Conoco-Phillips shut down North Slope drilling operations. Leaders in Dillingham asked the governor to close the Bristol Bay fishery. Is this anything that city government has considered? 


TUTIAKOFF: I believe at this time it's something that the council will have to discuss. But at this time, no.


KUCB: Thank you. Do either of you have anything you'd like to add?


TUTIAKOFF: I just can't say it enough, and I would hope that people that are listening will pass it on to those that haven't heard that we are in a serious situation. And it takes all of us to keep our community safe and enable to get back and forth. And, you know, two, three, four months, this will hopefully be behind us and we're all safe and sound. That's what they were hoping for. That's why we're doing what we're doing here in the city.


KUCB: Great. Well, thank you so much for coming on. Mayor Tutiakoff and Erin. It's been great talking with you both.


TUTIAKOFF: OK, thank you, I look forward to possibly being a guest on your program in the near future. Maybe questions from this community as we move forward.


KUCB: Yes. You're jumping the gun. You've scooped me. Thank you so much. That was Mayor Tutiakoff and City Manager Erin Reiners joining us on KUCB. We're also going to host a live call in show next Friday, April 17th. You can call in live or send questions in advance to 

Caroline reported for KUCB in 2020.
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