The Big Empty

the big empty

A deserted Denali Park Road/Wikimedia Commons

News analysis

The federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on Friday reported its busiest day at U.S. airports since March 25.

Just under 215,500 people passed through TSA checkpoints on that day – about a twelfth the number on the same date last year, according to the TSC “checkpoint travel numbers.”

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.”

American fears

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.

Cruiseship tour companies that normally help fill the parks with visitors have already announced they will not operate this season. 

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.


But parks are only a small part of an Alaska outdoor recreation business which was estimated to be worth $7.3 billion in 2017. 

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.

Not this year. The Park Service in March banned Denali climbing for the 2020 season because of COVID-19.

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.

Despite the major carriers grounding most of their planes, the aircraft still in the air “are almost empty, averaging just 17 passengers per domestic flight,” National Public Radio reported today.

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.

A 2016 University of Alaska study reported nonresidents provided from 14 to 20 percent of the sales tax revenue for communities on the Kenai Peninsula.

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.











8 replies »

  1. Listen to you James Mykland, you whiny snowflake that can’t vote because he’s tired and hungry after working a grueling 8 hour day. Does it ever cross your mind that tens of thousands of Americans have given their lives for your right to vote? They’d have much preferred to come home from the fight and be able to stand in line to vote. Shame on YOU for preferring a voting method that breeds fraud. Glad you’re in liberal Washington state now, you’ll fit right in.

  2. Like a plot out of an old “X-files” episode, a key researcher in Pennsylvania who was about to announce a Coronavirus discovery winds up dead?

    “Bing Liu, a 37-year-old assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, was found dead in his house on Saturday…
    Colleagues said he was close to making “significant findings” on his studies of Covid-19, sparking online speculation it was an assassination…”

  3. More deep state baloney and they damn well know it.. “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.”

    At least 60% of all US Covid deaths are from nursing homes with an average age of 79.6 yo. The other 40% are from those that are obese or have severe underlying medical conditions to begin with.

    Like “Global Warming” experts, I’d say these Covid “public health experts (whatever that is) are full of chit. Liars and they know it.

    California just announced they will do mail-in ballots to further their fraud..The end game all along.

    Only a moron couldn’t look at the numbers (and they are half baked) and know this whole thing isn’t a bunch of baloney with bad intent.

    Pete, do you mind?

    • Plus, the airfares haven’t impressed me yet. Was hoping for some good deals. Nuff’n!!!

    • Actually mail in ballot makes sense here in WA, where I registered to vote, in this state, first time, since’79. I had a AK voter registration card from ‘80-2019.
      The ease of voting in private at home, is much better than standing in a line, on Election Day, after working 8 hours, tired and hungry.
      We need to have voting be fully accessible to all registered voters and legal US citizens, in the most simplest of ways.
      The State of WA, secured my signature, which is what I wrote on the voter registration card.
      If you oppose voting by mail in ballot, shame on you. BTW, it is not a commie plot.

      • Ever heard of ballot harvesting. If Pelosi, Hillary, Newsom, Schumer, Obama, are pushing it, then it smells of criminal corruption. It is the main reasons that mainly “blue” states will drag this whole Covid fear nonsense out for as long as they can. You can believe what you want and that pigs fly, but if they have a “D” after their name they are generally treasonous. Heard ONE Dem criticize China? Just one?

      • Also James, you are talking about the same people who brought you the whole treasonous, lying, criminal, corrupt, Russian hoax, the Ukrainian hoax, the Kavannaugh hoax, and a coup on a sitting president that continues today. The same people who have corrupted our government at the highest levels and used the Federal Gov against their political enemies. You still want those bums in charge of anything? Wake-up.

  4. The only “business” that will prosper will likely be crime. When people have no money or hope then watch out! When they are hungry but don’t have the $ to feed themselves or their family, but their neighbors do, then watch out. The potential for theft related crimes as well as violence is real. People will do what is needed to survive. Funny how many laughed at “Preppers”. They are looking pretty smart now. And trust me they are prepared for those who think they can take away their stockpiles of food and drink.

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