It’s all about that freight. While passenger traffic is almost non-existent, freight is still on the move in Southeast Alaska. The Sitka Food Co-op recently loaded a shipment for the town of Pelican — on private vessels. (KCAW photo/Berett Wilber)

Although accessing federal relief funds has been challenging — especially for Sitka’s seasonal businesses — other businesses are adapting as best they can to the circumstances, and even forging ahead in the new reality.

At its most recent luncheon meeting (4-22-20), the Sitka Chamber of Commerce gathered a larger crowd than usual — about 40 individuals, via Zoom — to discuss some of the challenges of conducting business during the pandemic.

Kris Wilcox sells leggings at her downtown store 57 Peaks — one of the non-essential businesses ordered to close its doors in March. She says that she’s got a loyal customer base which she cultivates by email.

“We did a campaign a couple of weeks ago, because we have nothing happening in the physical store, and we had a fantastic response,” said Wilcox. “The problem is that our fulfillment company has lagged behind because of the restrictions and safety protocols. They can only use about half as many people before, so our shipping times are really delayed.”

Wilcox says that she’s been in touch with other Sitka retailers and organizing quick shipping right from town, so that Mothers Day orders will arrive in time.

As essential businesses, Sitka’s groceries have remained open with social distancing practices in place. Vince Winter, branch manager at AC Lakeside, says his store’s online and curbside business is growing quickly — even outside of town.

“The curbside delivery and the addition of the online has been very successful,” Winter said. “We’re now doing about 50-80 bush orders a day due to that. There’s a lot of special needs people, where we take it to the house and drop it downstairs. Anything that’s required. We have three ladies here that are making masks. We bought a lot of material, so we’ve got about 200 more masks that we’re going to donate. And we try to make it fun. We’ve got a salmon instead of a plain one. We try and give it some personality.”

In transportation, there’s been a lot of national news about the dramatic decrease in air travel. As far as passenger service goes, Alaska’s small carriers are seeing similar losses, but their freight traffic is up, according to Carl Ramseth, general manager of Alaska Seaplanes.

“So Alaska Seaplanes is still operating to the 12 communities we serve in Southeast,” said Ramseth. “Of course, at a much reduced frequency from what we would normally be doing this time of year. We are doing our Juneau-Sitka-Klawock-Sitka-Juneau run Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. And there’s a handful of people flying everyday on that route. But more importantly, we’re able to move freight back and forth to Klawock, and between Juneau and Sitka. A lot of it is SEARHC-related. And also groceries that connect over to Kake. We’re going to Kake daily from Juneau in the mornings.”

Surface shipping is also running pretty much as usual. Cory Baggen, vice-president of Samson Tug and Barge, says her business has not changed much. Everyone is observing social distancing standards; deliveries are happening — but only to customers’ doors, and not inside.

But that could change if Sitka starts to see local coronavirus cases.

“Things have been going pretty well,” Baggen said. “Our biggest concern, all over the transportation industry, is if we do have a positive test come in one of our facilities, how would we handle that? So, we’re working on those plans now. I’m actually on a task force for the Pacific Northwest and working with all the other carriers to Alaska to come up with those guidelines — working with the Coast Guard, the Department of Transportation, and all those organizations — trying to figure out a good set of plans for every type of vessel, and every type of transportation methodology. It’s really a lot of meetings. A lot of meetings.”

The Sitka Chamber remains upbeat about the summer season, even though the Centers for Disease Control’s no-sail order for large cruise ships is going to have a huge impact on many local businesses. The chamber is sending out weekly updates on state health mandates that affect business operations, and Visit Sitka is maintaining its online summer cruise ship calendar — showing arrivals in July — although, said Visit Sitka director Laurie Booyse (BOY-SUH), “cruise ship plans are changing daily.”