John Welsh works the counter at LFS in Sitka. Stores like LFS Marine Supply in have followed state health mandates to the letter, and successfully transitioned from curbside pickup to almost-normal retail sales. Chandler O’Connell, with the “Safe Stores” Initiative, wants businesses to have the tools to succeed safely under Phase 3. “This is about relationships between a business and consumers, and you want there to be clarity of information so everyone can have a good experience,” says O’Connell. (KCAW photo/Berett Wilber)

The state’s move to Phase 3 of its reopening plan on Friday, May 22, is generally good news for businesses forced to close previously under state health mandates.

But Phase 3 is not an “all clear” by any means, and actually places a lot of responsibility on businesses to keep their employees and customers safe.

The Sitka Chamber of Commerce this week invited the Sitka Health Summit to present information on its “Safe Stores, Safe Shoppers, and Safe Workers Initiative.”



Note: You can find a link to a request form for the “Safe Stores, Safe Shoppers, and Safe Workers Initiative” here.

Public health nurse Denise Ewing said the governor’s latest health mandate did not imply that Alaska was free from the virus. 

“The governor said make no mistake, the virus is with us,” she said. “We must function with it and manage it.”

That includes Sitka, which has had only one confirmed positive case. But Ewing said that there were likely unreported cases in the community, since the symptoms were so variable.

Phase 3 of the “Reopen Alaska Responsibly” plan allows all businesses to reopen which were closed by prior mandate, but it comes with a sternly-worded advisory. Public health in Alaska is now everyone’s responsibility. 

Ewing continued, “The governor is advising that we still stay six feet  or more away from non-family members; wash your hands; wipe down frequently-touched surfaces; wear face coverings in public settings, and in close contact with others; stay home if you’re sick; and be mindful and respectful of those who are more vulnerable than you are.”

Ewing emphasized this point: People who suffer from say, diabetes, don’t exactly advertise it on a t-shirt.

So how will being “mindful and respectful” work in an environment where people are eager to get on with business, yet fully aware that the COVID-19 virus remains active in the state, and is even spreading rapidly in some other parts of the country? That’s where the Sitka Health Summit’s “Safe Stores, Safe Shoppers, and Safe Workers Initiative” comes in. Six agencies have collaborated to survey Sitka businesses about what resources they feel they need to comply with public health guidelines, while still serving customers.

In all, 34 businesses and individuals responded to the survey. Health summit coalition member Chandler O’Connell ran through some of the results for the chamber audience. 

“You can see that cleaning supplies, hand sanitizers, and no-contact thermometers were at the top of the list,” O’Connell said. “And we know that the supply chain for these items has been challenging: There’ve been fluctuations in prices, fluctuations in delivery time, and so that was helpful guidance to get from the community that there’s still a need, even as the supply has been improving.”

Also, the one thing that has been a particular struggle for some residents loomed large on the survey: How to nudge customers to wear face coverings. 

“57-percent of businesses said they would like something like this,” said O’Connell. “And something that came up in our follow-up conversations with folks, is there’s a desire to provide clarity to customers to make it really easy to know what’s expected, while still making it welcoming. Right? This is about relationships between a business and consumers, and you want there to be clarity of information so everyone can have a good experience.”

O’Connell said that a local graphic designer was already working on signage for Sitka businesses, with messages ranging from “masks encouraged” to “masks required.”

The “Safe Stores, Safe Shoppers, Safe Workers Initiative” is funded by a $5,000 grant from the Sitka Legacy Foundation, and $2,000 from the Sitka Health Summit. The cleaning supplies, mitigation tools, and training materials made available by the initiative are not intended to replace a business’s normal expenses. Alaska is reopening under Phase 3 of a 4-part plan, but nothing is normal.

This is Gov. Mike Dunleavy, speaking to the press on Wednesday, May 20.

“You know, somebody asked me, Are we ever going to get back to normal? And I said, until there’s a vaccination, until there are antivirals, we’re going to  have to change our behaviors a little bit, because we’ve talked about how this virus works. I said, I don’t know the answer to that, but we’re going to work to getting back to as close as normal (as we can). And I think we’re headed in the right direction, again with your help, Alaska.”

Video: Gov. Dunleavy’s press conference on Phase 3, on May 20, 2020