The coronavirus pandemic shaped a strange year in the far southeast reaches of the state. On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, officials in Ketchikan reported the first positive coronavirus test in Southeast Alaska.
That was before masks, travel restrictions and lockdowns — and the virus spread quickly at first. After the governor ordered some businesses to close and local officials encouraged folks to hunker down, the immediate threat passed.
But the threat of the pandemic was two-pronged — not just a public health crisis, but an economic catastrophe for Ketchikan and much of Southeast Alaska after health officials banned cruising in U.S. waters.
Jewelry store owner Vinay Khemani said in June that the cruise industry shutdown was devastating. It’s hard enough to survive the winter. But when the industry shut down,
“It’s a 19 month impact … with no revenue,” he said.
It would be November by the time the public health threat returned in earnest. Ketchikan saw a serious COVID-19 outbreak that infected more than 100 people. The cluster eventually led to the area’s lone reported death associated with COVID-19: Julie Wasuli of Saxman.
This past year was also marked a setback for a century-old family grocery store. Tatsuda’s IGA was crushed by a landslide in late February. But co-proprietor Bill Tatsuda looked on the bright side.
“So, no injuries, which is good,” Tatsuda said. “A person can always start over if you’re still alive.”
Ketchikan also passed its first-ever LGBTQ civil rights measure this year. After a local shop refused an order for a same-sex wedding in June, protesters rallied across the street. Here’s Tommy Varela, one of the grooms-to-be.
“It’s time that Alaska catches up with some of the United States that has already passed antidiscriminatory laws. So we think that this is a perfect jumping off point. This is a perfect catalyst for change,” Varela told KRBD at the rally.
And it was. After an intense debate among residents, an ordinance outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression in housing, employment and public spaces in city limits passed unanimously.
It was a year of spirited debate in local government. Residents clashed on face masks, whether students should return to in-person school and the future of the city-owned port.
Kara Jones and Paula Weisel co-own The Arctic, Ketchikan’s oldest bar. They said this summer that it felt like the winter never really ended.
“I mean, by the end of February,” Jones said, “it’s time for a change because everybody’s at each other’s throats and —”
“The locals are cranky,” Weisel said. “To put it in a good way, the locals are a little crankier than normal.”
While Ketchikan residents didn’t have to compete with tourists to enjoy the downtown waterfront, they had another foe to contend with: an unceasingly, record-breakingly rainy summer.
But the year was not without its bright spots: For about a month, a humpback whale named Phoenix boosted locals’ spirits with near-daily feedings downtown in November.
While the rain dampened spirits for much of the year, it posed a more serious threat in December. Nearly two feet of rain fell in an eight-day span, and a reservoir upstream of downtown Ketchikan started to fill up.
Officials warned the dam on the brink of failing and encouraged residents to evacuate.
“So we have two areas that we’re concerned about. One is the actual dam. But more importantly, is the low lying places along the creek,” Ketchikan Public Utilities Electric Division Manager Andy Donato said as the voluntary evacuation was issued.
But after dire rainfall predictions didn’t pan out, officials canceled the evacuation.
The future remains uncertain for Ketchikan. But there’s a ray of hope.
Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and first responders are receiving doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.
And city officials, business leaders and public health experts are planning for what a 2021 cruise season might look like. Some have floated the prospect of a bubble, but key ports in Canada and the Lower 48 remain closed, and cruise lines haven’t said when they’ll return to Alaska.