- City Manager Jim Hunt.
- About 280 people call Whittier, Alaska home.
- Nearly everyone in the remote city lives in one 14-story high-rise, and the only way in or out of town is through a 2.5-mile tunnel.
- A COVID-19 outbreak there could be especially dire.
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In Whittier, Alaska, a remote city about an hour outside of Anchorage, nearly every resident lives under one roof.
If there were to be a coronavirus outbreak in the Begich Tower, it could be especially devastating, City Manager Jim Hunt told Insider.
“Since 80 percent of our population lives here, in this 14-story building, in real close quarters, everyone is hyper-aware now,” Hunt said. “We have distancing in place, disinfecting plans in place, the city locked down our offices probably two weeks ago, and there’s no public access to our public safety building.”
Whittier is one of the most unusual places in America. The city was a secret World War II substation, and the only way in or out of the city is through a 2.7-mile tunnel.
Almost anyone who doesn’t live in the tower lives in a smaller condominium complex on the town’s east side.
There are no neighborhoods or single-family homes, and winters are brutal.
“60 MPH winds day and night for a week is not unusual. We get tremendous amounts of snow,” Hunt said. “We are on Prince William Sound, so it is absolutely beautiful, and everything is forgiven when you get a nice day.”
The freezing weather has helped some when it comes to social distancing, as about 70 of the 280 residents have left the city for “the Outside,” Hunt said.
“With a capital O,” he said. “They get out of Alaska.”
As for the people who have stayed, they are asked to limit their time in the hallways. If they do take the elevators or stairs, they have to go one family at a time.
Because the whole building shares one ventilation system, most people have taped over the vents in their bathrooms, according to Hunt.
“We have really unusual – I don’t want to say dangers or threats – but factors that come into play that we have to protect ourselves from now that we’re learning more and more about the aerosol aspect of the virus,” Hunt said.
So far, there have been no COVID-19 cases, Hunt said.
“Our whole community has kind of banded together to keep the menace at bay, from coming through the tunnel,” Hunt said. “We have essential personnel only beyond a certain point into town.”
- Jim Hunt
Residents can’t get groceries in Whittier
There is no such thing as toilet paper hoarding in Whittier because the city only has two small stores with a limited supply of essentials.
To grocery shop, residents have to drive an hour north out of town, Hunt said.
“Well, you have one choice. You have to go to Anchorage,” Hunt said. “And therein lies the risk to people who live here.”
In addition to those leaving town to get supplies, Whittier police officers also spend time patrolling the ski resort town of Girdwood.
“Our officers are out, where they wouldn’t be exposed here, have the opportunity for exposure up there,” Hunt said. “That’s also a little nerve-wracking for people. On our upper floors, we have quite a few elders.”
Hunt, though, said that residents at the tower have been heeding social distancing advice and staying at home.
When people leave their units, they can be seen wearing masks or using hand sanitizer. Those working in the small post office, which is also in the tower, wear gloves and masks too, Hunt said.
One of the most vivid results of the coronavirus might be the silence in the hallways.
Usually, if the city’s children are out of school, they can be heard throughout the building.
“They’ve done a real good job of isolating. There is very little traffic,” Hunt said. “Particularly with school out, on a normal day, there would be children playing in the halls, running. But not now, not now.”
- Jen Kinney
Whittier is preparing for a slow summer and loss in tourism dollars
About 38 percent of Whittier’s budget comes from tourism dollars. Every year, about 40 cruise ships dock in the city.
This summer will be different.
“We were supposed to get our first one on May 10,” Hunt said. “We’re not going to get any this year, we already know. We’re the Princess (Cruises) destination.”
Princess Cruises has been hit harder than many other cruise lines when it comes to the coronavirus. Its Diamond, Grand, Regal, Golden, Pacific, Caribbean, Coral Princess, and Royal Princess cruises have all been affected in some way, whether it be coronavirus-related deaths caused by contaminated ships and passengers, or the cancellation of trips just before its departure date out of general COVID-19 fear.
Hunt expects that the city will see an $800,000 loss from that alone.
“It is significant in that we dedicate that money to infrastructure equipment, and fire and safety benefits, for the cruise ship visitors,” he said.
The other big business in town is fishing.
Hunt says he’s been working with Whittier Seafood, a large fish processor, to make sure that the town stays safe as they have to start hiring for the season in the coming months.
“They’re preparing to ramp up and bring workers in in May,” Hunt said. “We’ve established protocols and are working on a mutual aid agreement with them, so everyone is on the same page about when it’s acceptable to bring someone through the tunnel.”