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Juneau mulls reducing bar capacity again as COVID-19 cases highest since December

Sitka has seen a sustained spike in cases and is at a high alert level
Juneau City Hall
Juneau City Hall(KTUU)
Published: Jul. 21, 2021 at 6:47 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Juneau is experiencing its highest COVID-19 case count since December, leading officials to consider raising the city’s risk level back up to moderate.

Robert Barr, Juneau’s deputy city manager, said a decision would be made on Thursday or Friday, depending on case counts and how many cases come from community spread, a designation meaning contact tracers couldn’t determine where the virus came from.

If the COVID-19 risk level is raised, indoor capacity in bars would again drop to 50% and restaurants would be strongly recommended to make the same change. A face mask mandate in city buildings has already been reintroduced.

Jared Curé, owner of the Narrows Bar in downtown Juneau, has recently seen customers return with case counts dropping and customers hungry to socialize again.

“A couple of good months felt good, but it does not make up for the last year,” he said.

An uptick of COVID-19 numbers and correspondence from city officials that bar capacity could again be reduced was not welcome news.

“It just feels like a kick in the pants,” Curé said.

Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist, explained that rising cases across Alaska have two main explanations: the spread of the delta variant and Alaskans returning to normal life and spending time indoors together.

The Alaska Sequencing Consortium released a report on Tuesday, showing that the delta variant is now the dominant strain of COVID-19 in Alaska, accounting for 56% of the cases that were sequenced in Alaska during the week that began on June 27.

Some of the 67 active Juneau COVID-19 cases are linked back to an outbreak onboard the American Constellation cruise ship. Around 30% of the city’s active cases have been investigated with no clear sources found.

“We are seeing a spike right now and a fair bit of that is attributable to community spread, which is the type of transmission we like to see the least,” Barr said.

Nearby, Sitka is experiencing a sustained COVID-19 outbreak with 208 active cases and a population just under four times smaller than Juneau’s. Thirty-seven new cases were reported in Sitka on Tuesday, including two nonresidents.

Craig Warren, the city’s incident commander, said Sitka has seen an exponential growth in cases. In June, there were only a handful of cases as people socialized together in the summer.

Warren suspects the delta variant could be a factor.

It takes two to three weeks to sequence the strains of COVID-19 present in a community, McLaughlin said, meaning it’s unclear exactly how prevalent the delta variant currently is in Alaska.

Juneau and Sitka’s vaccination rates are high. According to the city, over 75% of Juneau residents 12 and older are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and there are similar vaccination rates in Sitka.

Evidence suggests some vaccinated residents are contracting the virus, but experiencing less severe symptoms. McLaughlin said the state’s data shows that 96% of Alaska’s COVID-19 hospitalizations and 98% of its deaths have come from people not fully-vaccinated for the virus.

The spike in Juneau cases comes after they had fallen from highs in November.

The City and Borough of Juneau ended its mask mandate for fully-vaccinated people on May 14, following guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s unclear if current measures will need to be extended after they’re set to expire at the end of the month, Barr said.

”It’s hard to go back to where we were just a couple of months ago from a mitigation perspective,” he added. “I certainly don’t enjoy wearing a mask again, but I am. And I think as a community it’s something we need to do to tamp down that case activity and enjoy the rest of the summer and get kids back in school this fall.”

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