If you passed through Ketchikan International Airport in March or April, the place likely felt like a ghost town. But in recent weeks, more and more people are flying into Southeast Alaska.
During the first weeks of Alaska’s COVID-19 pandemic passenger air traffic into Ketchikan International slowed to a trickle.
Airport Manager Mike Carney recalls that in April, the terminal saw around 13 people arriving daily. A 94 percent drop.
The low point came when one day saw just five arrivals.
But by June, the state had relaxed coronavirus travel restrictions. Passenger numbers then started to tick upwards to just over 100 per day.
“Just keeps steadily climbing like that,” he said. “When you look at starting into July, and I would say right after the fourth, it started rising pretty steadily 234 passengers on the 11th, 287 passengers, then we got into the 300 passengers. This weekend we had a day with 420.”
Despite the increase, Carney says even 300-plus passengers is still less than half of the airport’s usual summer volume. A typical summer day can see 1,000 land.
In Juneau, it’s a similar story.
“We’ve been watching this gradual uptick in the number of airline air carrier passengers.”
That’s Juneau’s Airport Manager Patty Wahto. She says that numbers are still much lower than usual. Still, she says the airport hasn’t laid anyone off. And there’s plenty of work to be done with the need for increased cleaning and disinfecting.
Back in Ketchikan, some residents have expressed concerns that visitors will bring COVID-19 with them. So far, more than half of positive cases in town are travel-related.
Community members spoke for roughly an hour at the Borough Assembly meeting last week asking for stronger pandemic precautions. One of them was Ketchikan physician Diane Liljegren.
“The more people you have coming from somewhere else, the higher the risk that one or two or three of those people will be infected, and in, for most cases unwittingly starts spreading in the community,” she said. “And I think our community is at fairly high risk because not enough people are masking and social distancing.”
Jean Bartos was also among more than a dozen people who expressed concerns to the Borough Assembly. She wrote in a comment read by Borough clerk Kacie Paxton.
“I am in the vulnerable population, being over 75 years old,” Bartos said. “I am being as careful as I can, social distancing and wearing a face mask when I am outside my home. I need the protection that a 14-day quarantine of arriving visitors would provide.”
Ketchikan City Council recently called on the governor to require a two-week quarantine for out-of-state travelers. The Borough Assembly will take up the question later this month.
The community’s top pandemic response official also recently announced that a testing station for interstate travelers would move across the Tongass Narrows, closer to the airport. He says that’ll make it more difficult to bypass state-required coronavirus testing.
Meanwhile, Carney did say that he expects to see a dropoff in passengers arriving in the fall. He expects the slowdown to align with past years, with fewer people flying in for seasonal work and recreation.