ALL IN THE SAME TACO BOAT – Sitkans, many wearing face masks, line up this afternoon at the Sitka Elks Lodge food booth. With the pandemic, most of this year’s Sitka Independence Day events have been modified, but not entirely canceled. The American Legion and Sizzling Chow Cuisine also will have outdoor food booths. While there’s no downtown parade, there is a parade of classic cars that will tour Sitka streets beginning at 1 p.m. at Whale Park. A sing-along and military salute will take place on Totem Square 7 p.m. Friday and a fireworks display will take place 11:30 Friday night over Sitka Channel, with spectators asked to follow social distancing recommendations. The Rotary Club is holding its annual Duck Race on the fourth. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

Economy Task Force Sees Hope for Sitka

By ARIADNE WILL
Special to the Sentinel

Members of the Sitka Economic Resiliency Task Force discussed the good news and the not-so-good news Tuesday at their regular weekly meeting.

The task force, which represents a range of Sitka business, social and special interest groups, has been meeting weekly since April 21 to work on ways to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on Sitka’s economy.

In her report to the group on Tuesday, Shauna Thornton, representing banking, and Fran Schwuchow, the workforce support representative, suggested that Sitka is doing better than it was at the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schwuchow, who works at Sitka Job Center, said she’s trying to have a positive outlook despite the absence of seasonal work.

“It looks like things are starting to pick back up a little bit,” she said.

Sitka’s unemployment rate reached 13% in early April, which is below national and state averages, Schwuchow said. Alaska cities such as Haines and Skagway have seen unemployment rates surge as tourism-based jobs have fallen through, she said.

Thornton, who is branch manager at First National Bank Alaska, said people are still spending money.

“I’m seeing more applications for new items to purchase than in the last little while that I’ve been here,” she said. 

She added that travel rentals and vacation bookings are “heavily booked” and will be filled as soon as travel mandates are lifted.

“I think that as the mandates are lifted and people start arriving, we’ll see some of our unemployed folks going back to work,” she said.

Thornton said that as it is, people are continuing to pay their mortgages and that landlords are being understanding when renters are unable to make rent.

“I think people are trying to help each other,” she said.

Keith Perkins, who is involved in the single family housing loan program, said the program is busy despite economic drawbacks.

Perkins, representing USDA Rural Development, reported that the program is as busy as it has been in the last three years. Several families are approved or close to being approved and will soon be shopping for a home, he told the task force Tuesday.

The task force is led by Garry White, director of the Sitka Economic Development Association, and holds its meetings over the Zoom videoconferencing platform. During the hourly meetings White gives each member time to report on their sector. This includes reports from meetings members may have held with people in their sector.

In addition to White, Thornton, Schwuchow and Perkins, Tuesday’s Economic Resilience Task Force meeting was attended by Robin Sherman (nonprofits), Cora Dow (youth), Camille Ferguson (tribal economic development), Jay Sweeney (City and Borough of Sitka), John Holst (education) and Dirk White (White’s Pharmacy).

The subject of how the city will use its share of federal CARES Act funding was again discussed.

On that issue, there is overlap between the economic resiliency group and the “working group” the Assembly has set up to recommend uses of the $14 million the city will receive from the CARES Act program. The Assembly will make the final decisions.

In their Tuesday discussion, members of the Economic Resiliency Task Force suggested having the CARES Act used to hire more public safety first responders.

Task force members also expressed interest in forming a pool of money to help small businesses and nonprofits, which includes community services like childcare.

Independent of the task force, the Assembly is already in the process of committing $4.5 million of CARES Act funds for subsidies on Sitkans’ utility and moorage bills.

Sweeney said the city working group, of which he is also a member, has discussed using CARES Act to mitigate economic strain on city finances.

“We’re due to lose a substantial amount of revenue,” he said, in reference to the coronavirus pandemic. One reason for the loss is the sales tax lost from a curtailed tourist season. Another is the loss of school bond debt reimbursement from the state.

“We’re poised to lose another $3 million from the State of Alaska,” Sweeney said.

Robin Sherman said Sitka’s nonprofit sector will be able to help the town recover from the pandemic downturn in the economy. 

She said the more than two dozen nonprofits she meets with are eager to help with Sitka’s current – and difficult – economic situation.

“Nonprofits shared challenges they’re facing, shared their contribution to the local economy and now they’re going to help the whole community recover,” she said.

The task force also acknowledged the connection between nonprofits and small businesses, which provide financial support to local nonprofits.

“I get nervous about small businesses because they really have been givers,” said Perkins. 

Perkins said the closures of small businesses affect Sitka “across the board.” He said he believes Sitka is resilient, but that the city will need to find creative ways to support small businesses.

“I already know of three businesses who have folded up their tents and said, ‘We’re done,’” Perkins told the task force.

Keeping money in the community was also a topic discussed at the Tuesday meeting.

Camille Ferguson, manager of Sitka Tribal Enterprises, spoke of CARES Act money that has been allocated to the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and to Sitka Tribal Enterprises.

“A lot of that money will be staying in the community of Sitka and will be filtered through the community, so that’s good news,” Ferguson said.

She said she and STA manager Lisa Gassman, another member of the task force, talked about making grants to nonprofits and Native-owned businesses.

Ferguson said she also wants to explore ideas such as a commercial garden, which would keep money in the local economy and would minimize food costs for people purchasing locally grown produce. 

More information about SERTF can be found at sitka.net/sitka-economic-resilience-task-force.

 

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Alaska COVID-19
At a Glance

(updated 7-2-20)

By Sentinel Staff

The state Department of Health and Social Services has posted the following update on the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alaska as of 11:15 a.m. Wednesday.

New cases as of Monday: 39

Total statewide – 1,017

Total (cumulative) deaths – 14

Active cases in Sitka – 8 (6 resident; 2 non-resident)

Recovered cases in Sitka – 10 (7 resident; 3 non-resident)

The state says the cumulative number of cases hospitalized is 68.

To visit the Alaska DHSS Corona Response dashboard website click here.

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Welcome to the Sitka Sentinel's web page. In order to make the Sentinel's news more easily available during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have taken down the paywall to access articles on this page. Just click on an article headline to read the story. 

March 23, 2020

NOTICE FROM THE PUBLISHERS

TO READERS AND ADVERTISERS

For the duration of the COVID-19 disaster emergency declared by federal, state and local authorities, the Sentinel is taking additional measures to reduce virus exposure to its employees and contractors as well as to the public, while continuing to publish a daily news report for Sitka.

To the extent possible, Sentinel news and sales staff will be working from home. For the protection of our carriers, home delivery of the newspaper will be stopped effective Tuesday, March 24.

The Sentinel will continue to publish on its website sitkasentinel.com. Access to the website will be free to all users. The Sentinel will also produce a print edition Monday through Friday. It will be available to all readers without charge, at locations throughout town.

Initially, these locations are those where the Sentinel's newspaper vending machines are already in place. The coin mechanisms will be disabled or the doors removed to permit easy access. The Sentinel will work with the stores where the paper is usually sold, to designate a place inside or outside the store where the free edition can be made available.  

Home delivery subscriptions are on hold, and after the end of the disaster emergency, subscriptions will be extended at no charge for the number of days that there was no home delivery.

The Sentinel will make its print edition available to the public as early in the day as possible. with all personnel taking precautions to prevent spread of the virus.

The Sentinel is calling upon its customers to observe the COVID-19 emergency precautions already in place, particularly in maintaining a six-foot social distance from others at newspaper distribution sites.

Following is the statement issued by the Sentinel on March 16, stating the Sentinel's emergency procedures, which remain in effect.

The Sentinel office at 112 Barracks Street is closed to the public. We encourage people to use the phone, email or the U.S. Postal Service as much as possible.There is a slot in the front door of the office for ads, news items and payment checks. Emails may be sent to  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and the phone number is (907) 747-3219.                                                                          

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