The federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on Friday reported its busiest day at U.S. airports since March 25.
Anyone who doubts the reality that the pandemic panic is about to devastate the summer tourism season in Alaska need only look at the numbers. Americans have largely stopped flying.
Last year, the records show, more than 19 million people passed through TSA checkpoints in the first eight days of May. This year the number for those days of May is 1.3 million – a 93.2 percent drop from the number of people traveling in 2019.
Passenger numbers have been creeping up since a low of 87,534 on April 14, but it’s been a very slow increase in an environment where the “new normal” of life with COVID-19 is now a constant source of discussion.
Type “COVID-19” and “new normal” into your favorite search engine, and you will get millions of hits from those speculating on what it will look like. News organizations, health companies, economists, experts on foreign affairs, think tanks, and bloggers in their basements are all weighing in.
Many are critical of President Donald Trump’s decision to begin opening the country back up as the height of the summer season approaches.
“States are responding to the tremendous economic cost of the pandemic and people’s pent-up desire to be ‘normal’ again” is how the Kaiser Health News put it on Friday. “But public health experts remain cautious. In many areas, they note, COVID cases — and deaths — are still on the rise, and some fear new surges will follow the easing of restrictions.”
“Reopening is not back to normal. It is trying to find ways to allow people to get back out to do things they want to do, and business to do business,’ Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials told the website. “We can’t pretend the virus has gone away. The vast majority of the population is still susceptible.”
A poll conducted by the Washington Post and the University of Maryland at the start of the month found the citizenry sharing Plescia’s fear. Sixty-three percent of Americans were very or somewhat concerned “about becoming infected and seriously ill from the coronavirus” as of last Sunday.
The numbers of people worried have only gone up since the middle of April, according to the poll.
Sixty-eight percent thought the worst was happening now or yet to come with the majority of those anticipating the worst is still on the horizon. Large majorities expressed support for continued closures of movie theaters (83 percent), gyms (78 percent), dine-in restaurants (74 percent), and gun stores (70 percent).
A Dallas Morning News-University of Texas poll at the start of the month found 84 percent of Texans unwilling to travel by air until at least July 1 and 73 percent planning to stay away from airlines until sometime after July 31.
And Texans are among the boldest Americans with only 34 percent of them saying they’d be uncomfortable dining out. That stands in stark contrast to the 78 percent nationwide who told Post-UM pollsters that they would be uncomfortable doing so.
To some in Alaska, this might appear all good. A minority of Alaskans have long complained about being forced to share their favorite fishing holes or hiking trails with tourists. Even more are known to complain about getting stuck behind a rented motorhome full of sightseeing tourists puttering along one of the state’s many two-lane highways at 45 mph.
But the costs to the Alaska economy of even a small drop in tourism are huge. A National Park Service analysis of the economic value of tourism in 2018 concluded every visitor to the state’s national parks and preserves left behind $678.02.
The nearly 3 million park visitors in 2018 pumped almost $1.4 billion into the Alaska economy, according to the study.
If the national trend with airlines continues to track the 93.2 percent decline in travel, the state could be looking at the economic loss of about $1.3 billion in park tourism alone.
Alaskans are, of course, expected to keep some business flowing through the stores that provide supplies for hunting, fishing, boating, biking, hiking and more, but nonresident visitors have always been a key part of the business model.
Bass Pro Shops, having purchased Cabela’s three years ago, now owns two mega-outdoor sporting good stores in Anchorage. One has to wonder if both will remain open through the summer. Bass Pro could save considerable money by mothballing one and operating only the other.
Even if it keeps both open, staffing is sure to shrink significantly given the tourism decline. It is the same for REI which just moved into a new store in Midtown. Normally this time of year, REI is busy with non-resident and foreign climbers preparing to try for the summit of 20,310-foot Mount Denali – North America’s highest peak.
The Talkeetna-based Alaska Mountaineering School (AMS) was among the businesses left wondering how it would get through the summer. It has been on hold all spring and is hoping to offer some classes starting next month, but notes it is at the mercy of federal, state and local regulators.
Not to mention the fears of travelers. Colby Coombs wrote on the company blog that the AMS is capable of modifying operations to meet social distancing standards that would permit some classes “if domestic travel restrictions allow us to get to our course locations.”
That’s a big if. Coombs needs access to small aircraft in which social distancing is all but impossible.
Major airlines have been able to provide considerable social distancing, but mainly because almost no one is flying.
Meanwhile, airlines are sterilizing planes between flights, requiring passengers to wear face masks onboard, blocking out middle seats, keeping passengers 6-feet apart in gangways, and staggering seating once onboard while contemplating how to increase future capacity to avoid the need to push ticket prices through the roof.
No one has come up with a solution as to how to protect people sitting only inches apart in the small aircraft that haul tourists and recreationists all over unroaded Alaska or take them on flight-seeing tours.
Flight-seeing companies, climbing businesses, guides of all sorts, hotels, car and motorhome rental companies, sled-dog tours, even roadside B&Bs are now among those threatened by the mother-of-all, summer-long economic slumps in the 49th state.
It seems evitable some businesses will fail, and the impacts will ripple through the state economy. Both the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough are significantly dependent on sales taxes for revenue.
The state’s largest city isn’t immune to big revenue losses either. Visit Anchorage reported the tourist “bed tax” in the state’s generated more than $27.7 million in 2018.
The national and state lockdowns do appear to have flattened the curve in the spread of the epidemic virus SARS-CoV-2, but in the 49th state they now also appear destined to leave the industry that is the state’s largest employer struggling to survive on prison wages.