Along a rough gravel road that follows the bed of a long-abandoned railway deep into one of the last great wilderness areas in North America, coronavirus COVID-19 has brought to the fore the global conflict between two basic necessities of life: physical health and economic health.
A hundred years ago, this now wild place was Alaska’s industrial heartland. At the end of the long-gone Copper River and Northwestern Highway snaking north for 196 miles from the tiny port of Cordova through a countryside home to more wildlife than people, the rumble of the Kennecott copper mine and mill echoed across the glacier-filled vastness of the Wrangell Mountains.
Here lived a real-world version of Galt’s Gulch long before it sprang to life in Libertarian author Ayn Rand’s best-selling, 1957 novel “Atlas Shrugged.”
What remains of the mine and mill today is a national historic landmark managed by the National Park Service in the middle of the 20,600-square-mile Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve where the few residents not living on retirement or welfare eke out a living in the 49th state’s sketchy and highly seasonal tourism industry.
Only about hundred people make their homes year-round in the park – maybe 50 along the McCarthy Road, most of them in McCarthy on the south side of the park, and 50 or so along the Nabesna Road on the north side of the park.
There might be a couple to a few thousand people living around the edges of the park in the Valdez-Cordova Census area which counts 9,468 with the port cities of Valdez and Cordova accounting for two-thirds of that number.
This is big, wild country where social distancing has been an eight-month, cold-season norm for a long time. But everything changes in summer when tourists come to visit the national park, and Alaskans flood out of Anchorage and Fairbanks to dip nets into the fast and muddy waters of the Copper River on the parks western edge in the hopes of pulling out shiny, silvery salmon.
Worried about both groups of people possibly introducing COVID-19 in the region, the McCarthy Area Council on Monday petitioned Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy to “encourage the National Park Service to enact a parkwide closure to visitation from non-local residents….
“Eliminating non-critical travel to our area will help prevent the spread of COVID-19 to remote communities within and surrounding Wrangell-St. Elias NP&P.
“Normally during this time of year, McCarthy-Kennecott dramatically increases in size due to the arriving seasonal workforce. We support a parkwide closure as soon as possible to prevent this influx.”
At the time, the Park Service had already killed the Mount Denali climbing season in Denali National Park and Preserve and was in the process of shutting down Brooks Camp, a popular bear-viewing attraction in Katmai National Park and Preserve in far Western Alaska. It is now closed until at least July 1.
When McCarthy Area Council Secretary Tamara Harper sent the Council’s letter to the governor, she thought the council was doing the right thing. She subsequently emailed area residents, or at least those with emails, to notify them “about what we are doing here to prevent the spread of COVID-19 into our remote community.”
Safety versus freedom
The Council’s helpfulness was not uniformly well received in a place where people are used to making their own decisions, sometimes involving matters of what could be life or death.
The governor was quickly bombarded by a rain of correspondence from those opposed to any closure.
Logan Claus, a third-generation resident of the area might have summed the reactions of a sizable number best when she wrote that “historically McCarthy has been a place of freedom and virtually no government. That is a huge part of what we all love about it.”
In this remote area, as in some other corners of America, COVID-19 has brought to a head in ways never imagined the sometimes inherent conflict between long dueling societal desires for safety and individual desires for freedom.
“Click-it or ticket,” a law enforcement scheme requiring motorists to wear seat belts to save lives, is one thing. A government lockdown aimed at keeping people from driving out of the immediate area of their homes is another.
And when the latter restriction threatens economic security….
“While I understand how fear could cause someone to believe that park closure is the right course of action,” Claus wrote, “that is an extremely narrow-minded viewpoint. From reading their letter it is easy to assume that McCarthy is the only community that would be affected by park closure. That is wildly untrue. It would affect businesses and communities across more than 20,000 square miles – (an area more than twice the size of New Hampshire) – outside of McCarthy.
Claus is the daughter of Paul and Donna Claus, who own the remote Ultima Thule Lodge deep in the park. His father, Paul, is a renowned Alaska Bush pilot who has saved many lives and hauled back to civilization the bodies of too many adventurers who didn’t survive.
The Claus family knows life and death close up in a way foreign to many Americans today.
“None of us know the answers to this present problem,” Paul and Donna wrote the governor, “and we know it is agonizing for you.”
But the Claus family wasn’t buying the idea that closing the park for the summer – and killing a tourist season already in serious danger – is the answer.
Shutting down the entire park to protect against COVID-19, they wrote, “is like tearing the Empire State Building down to fix a crack in the concrete. It is so over the top it is almost impossible to wrap our minds around.”
The family did not pull any punches on the view of the tradeoff between the risk of sickness and the likelihood of economic devastation either, observing that the desire of some “to protect themselves only is evident.
“My suggestion to them is to isolate in their homes; do not pick up the mail from the handy air delivery; and certainly do not take in any of the groceries that come in for them. Keep away from the rest of us.”
Other McCarthy areas businesses made similar pleas to the governor.
Dr. David Katz – a specialist in preventative medicine and public health, and the founding director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center – backed the idea of sheltering the vulnerable and putting others back to work in a March 20 op-ed in the New York Times (NYT).
Nine days later Katz appeared on CNN where NYT Science and Health writer Donald McNeil called the view “an extremely dangerous way of thinking” and “demanded the doctor “take that paper back and apologize for it because I think it provided a scientific underpinning for (President) Donald Trump to say things like the cure is worse than the disease.
“And I know what it feels like to provide the scientific underpinning for Donald Trump because one of my articles did that. I wrote the one that said on Feb. 28 that Donald Trump did the right thing by closing the border to China.”
McNeil called for a lengthy lockdown to save lives, arguing “we’re not going to be able to think about our 401Ks or take retirement at the time we want to. We’re going to have to think about getting enough calories, for perhaps the next year until a vaccine is here.”
McNeil is still on the job. More than 16 million Americans are now experiencing a form of unexpected retirement in that they are out of work in an economy where state lockdowns have killed millions of service-sector jobs.
Much of the Alaska tourism season is already sunk with the cruise ships that bring more than 1.2 million people per year north tied up at their docks.
“More than half of all visitors coming to Alaska arrive by cruise ship,” according to the Alaska Resource Development Council. Cruises are “the” tourism business in the state’s Panhandle, and this looked to be a banner year.
“Alaska cruise ship visitors are expected to break new records for the fifth straight year,” Juneau public radio station KTOO trumpeted in September. “Meilani Schivjens of Rain Coast Data said that at least 1.44 million passengers are expected next season.”
Industry insiders now say the state will now be lucky if it sees half that many. The rest of the tourism market is expected to be hard hit as well.
Alaska Airlines announced in late March that it was cutting its flight schedule by 70 percent through May and voiced the “expectation that reductions will be substantial for at least the next several months. As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, government leaders across the country have appropriately encouraged social distancing and discouraged or restricted travel. As a result, Alaska – like other airlines – is seeing demand reductions of more than 80 percent.”
Remote Alaska tourism businesses are clinging to the hope that a trickle of visitors from out of state and Alaskans who love to explore the backcountry will provide enough business to help them survive. They were begging Dunleavy to avoid pleas for a shutdown.
As Ray Kreig, a co-owner of Base Camp Kennicott put it in a letter to Dunleavy, “we think the Alaskan government is the proper, primary authority to manage the COVID-19 health threat at the local level such as in McCarthy, not federal agencies.
“We look forward to a state determination that travel and tourism can begin again (hopefully soon) so that business and employment can start to recover.”
At this time, that appears a big hope.
South Korea has been one of the countries that has done best at flattening the curve of the COVID-19 epidemic, but more than a month after infections peaked, the country is continuing to report 30 to more than 50 new cases per day.
Worried about another increase in cases, South Korea on Monday ordered another two weeks of social distancing, and upped the penalties for those caught violating the rules for a 14-day self-quarantine after traveling overseas or for lying about their travel history or whereabouts, according to the South China Morning Post.
“We have no alternatives but to extend it because it is quite certain that the infections would spread further if we let down our guard,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said.
The pandemic is forecast to peak in Alaska this week, but it is unclear how much of an infection rate the 49th state – or any other state – is willing to accept before allowing life to return to normal.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week said he expected his country to remain under some restrictions for a long time.
CORRECTION: This is an edited version of the original story in which Logan Claus was misidentified.