A bus of tourists and visitors drives along the park road in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska, on Sept. 4, 2021. (Photo by Ash Adams for The Washington Post)
DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE — Denali National Park has just one road in and out. And each year, hundreds of thousands of visitors fill the park’s trademark buses for tours, hoping for a glimpse of a wolf or a brown bear in the shadow of North America’s highest peak.
The road’s 92-mile route winds up, over and around a series of sheer mountain passes before dead-ending at an old mining community at its westernmost point. When it was built, designers made what seemed like a reasonable assumption that worked for nearly a century: the mountainsides supporting the road would be stable.
But it turns out that at one of the road’s most precipitous points, a hidden menace was lurking under the surface.
And it has woken up.
Halfway along the route, as the road curls past the steep cliffs and chutes of Polychrome Pass, park scientists have discovered that a rocky glacier lies underneath it. Rising temperatures are accelerating the glacier’s movement downhill, carrying 300 feet of road bed with it and jeopardizing continued access to some of the park’s key attractions.
In August, the slide prompted park managers to close the road just short of the halfway point, forcing lodges on the far side to conduct a costly evacuation and end their summer tourist season early. This week, they announced the closure would continue through the entire summer of 2022.
Federal park officials now say they’re analyzing a $53 million plan to bridge the creeping pile of earth, with Congress poised to approve the money.
But for at least the next few years, the slow-moving landslide will interfere with one of Denali’s prized tourist sites. And as continued warming destabilizes other key planks in Alaska’s economy and threatens its infrastructure, the state’s elected leaders continue promoting the oil development that is helping to fuel the problem.
Alaska ranks as the nation’s fastest-warming state, and it gets roughly one-fourth of its discretionary spending from oil and gas revenue. Few officials embody this tension more than Republican Lisa Murkowski, Alaska’s senior senator.
In an August Facebook post, Murkowski touted her work to secure federal money to fix the landslide. And less than a week later, her campaign scheduled a political fundraiser at the Anchorage home of the top Alaska executive of oil company ConocoPhillips — the state’s top crude oil producer.
Murkowski and the rest of Alaska’s congressional delegation have blasted the Biden administration’s moves to block oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and support expanding drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska through ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project.
Climate activists in Murkowski’s home state argue that those efforts are incompatible with a recent International Energy Agency report that says there’s no room for new oil fields if the world hopes to reach a “net zero” energy system by 2050 — a target the world must hit to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
“She’ll say climate change is real and that it’s human-caused,” said Emily Sullivan, an Alaska climate organizer who lives part-time in the Denali area. “But the words are hollow if she continues to pursue new extraction projects.”
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, also a Republican, has questioned the scientific consensus that human-caused emissions are driving global warming. But Murkowski has taken a more moderate approach and accepts that the burning of fossil fuels plays a role.
In a phone interview, Murkowski rejected the idea of an inconsistency between her work to address global warming’s impacts on Alaska and her oil company ties, describing the industry as a key player in the transition to a lower-carbon future.
“You need to be working with the industry. You need to be working with the private sector. You need to be working with academia. You need to be working with the environmental groups — we all need to be working together,” she said. “Sometimes I think all we want to do is fight and bicker and prove that we can’t get things done.”
Alaska’s political leaders have supported some climate-friendly policies. Dunleavy has solicited investments in green energy from companies outside the state, and his administration is studying whether it can leverage state forests to sell carbon credits.
Murkowski helped frame major energy legislation approved by Congress last year that puts hundreds of millions of dollars toward wind, solar, tidal and geothermal power, along with carbon capture technology.
But critics say that they aren’t moving urgently enough to stave off major climate impacts in the state. One study by University of Alaska Anchorage professors predicts that global warming could cost the state more than $500 million a year over the next few decades, or roughly 1% of its gross domestic product.
“The only word that accurately describes this is hypocrisy — to say, ‘Human-caused climate change is real and we need to tackle it,’ but then to push for these specific policies that exacerbate it,” said Sullivan, the climate organizer. “It creates a false solution.”
Denali’s visitor industry, which park officials say generates more than $600 million a year in local spending, is not the only economic sector being hit by climate change in Alaska.
The trans-Alaska pipeline, which carries nearly 5% of the nation’s daily oil production, has been affected by thawing permafrost and flooding, requiring its owners to invest in costly repairs.
In a warming Bering Sea, federal scientists are reporting precipitous declines in crab stocks that could cost fishermen tens of millions of dollars in harvests. And in September, Alaska Native groups asked Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to declare a fisheries disaster given the collapse in the Yukon River’s salmon population — a crucial subsistence harvest for the region that also fuels a small commercial fishery.
North Slope oil companies, meanwhile, are engineering projects to include more chilling devices to help insulate the tundra their infrastructure sits on from the effects of climate change. And in response to permafrost thaw, one of Alaska’s largest mines recently spent $19 million on upgrades to its wastewater treatment system.
The Denali landslide is one of Alaska’s most visible climate impacts — one that Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate panel overseeing the National Park Service’s budget, has seen firsthand.
“I just kept looking up at that landslide area and down where it passes, and how narrow that road was and how much it had slipped from the year prior,” she said. “And I tell you: I just wanted to get out of there.”
Murkowski, along with park officials, stresses that risks to tourists are low. And even with the park road closed at Polychrome Pass, visitors can still ride buses halfway into the park and turn around short of the landslide.
But it will likely be at least two years before a bridge can be built that will return the park’s busy tourist ecosystem to normalcy.
The Robotic Total Station poised just beyond the weak part of the road at Pretty Rocks collects data on the shifting geography of the area. (Photo by Ash Adams for The Washington Post)
At Denali, park managers say instability at a spot known as Pretty Rocks has long been a minor nuisance.
In that area, the dirt road bed is cut into a shelf on the mountainside. And Denali scientists have discovered that at Pretty Rocks, a 300-foot stretch sits atop what’s called a rock glacier — ice mixed in with a large amount of rocky debris.
For decades, the rock glacier slid downhill just a few inches a year, creating small cracks in the road that required only sporadic maintenance. But in recent years, amid record warmth and rainfall, the glacier’s descent has sped up dramatically.
During the tourist season, maintenance crews have kept the road level by dumping gravel onto the slide. But the road shuts down for months each winter. And without the added gravel, the glacier has begun carrying the 300-foot shelf multiple feet downhill each offseason — detaching it at both ends from the rest of the road and leaving nearly cliff-steep slopes where it once connected.
The road typically stays open to its western end through mid-September. But by August this year, the movement had accelerated to more than a foot per day, forcing park managers to cut off access to Polychrome Pass a month early.
At a site visit last month, as rockfall tumbled down into a ditch on the uphill side of the road, park officials wearing hard hats described their maintenance crews’ intense efforts to keep traffic moving before the closure. Just before the decision was made to close the road, dump trucks were delivering dozens of loads of gravel to the site each week, with periodic breaks to allow buses through. (The road is closed to most private vehicle traffic during the summer season.)
“It just reached this point where it becomes unsustainable,” said Matt Shaefer, Denali’s top maintenance official. “You’re kind of running on a treadmill, but going backwards.”
PIctures is the threatened road site at Pretty Rocks in Denali National Park and Preserve. (Photo by Ash Adams for The Washington Post)
The closure caused major disruptions to the park’s tourism industry and, combined with an impending snowstorm, left the lodges at the western end of the road scrambling to evacuate guests.
“We informed them during breakfast, and told them they had 45 minutes to go gather their things,” said Simon Hamm, co-owner of the high-end Camp Denali lodge, which evacuated 30 guests. (Their consolation prize: Witnessing a wolf take down a caribou on their drive out.)
The road closure cut off the last two weeks of the lodge’s short season, costing it roughly $250,000 in lost business, stranding it with excess supplies and food and sending seasonal workers home early. Those losses rippled out to the regional economy, as the business pays bed taxes to the local borough and buys locally harvested food, like salmon and grains.
After less than two months without maintenance this fall, the 300-foot section of road has fallen some 30 feet, according to park managers.
They’re working urgently to advance construction of the bridge over the landslide. But it will likely be at least two years before it can open, leaving some Denali tourism businesses facing continuing uncertainty as they recover from a difficult coronavirus pandemic.
Hamm is reluctantly considering whether to start bringing in lodge guests by air.
Scientists say they expect warming to exacerbate problems along the Denali road, in addition to the Pretty Rocks landslide.
Park managers have identified more than 140 “unstable slopes” on the route. And some of those are likely to be affected by the widespread permafrost thaw predicted to happen throughout Denali in the coming decades.
“It’s highly likely that we will see mass movement events affecting the road in a very expensive way,” said Louise Farquharson, an Arctic geologist and research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “This isn’t a one and done.”
Twenty-one months after the country’s first confirmed case of the coronavirus, the U.S. economy remains rocked by conflicting forces, with businesses and households struggling to adjust to what many hoped would be a temporary disruption.
Uncertainty obscures the path forward. Backlogged supply chains have left ships - and the imports they carry - stuck outside key U.S. ports. Inflation has driven up the cost of everyday items and prices aren’t easing. Restaurant reservations have seesawed for months, bobbing up and down as Americans consider whether they feel safe amid the ongoing pandemic.
Meanwhile, the labor market has whipsawed millions of Americans through layoffs and then rehirings, with millions caught in between. Wages are up, and people are switching jobs are a record rate. And while growth for the year is still projected to approach 6%, White House and Federal Reserve officials underestimated the economic disruption that would persist through the pandemic’s second year. Now it appears certain that many of these strains, both economic and viral, will continue well into 2022, and perhaps beyond.
“There’s just no road map to opening a global economy in a pandemic, and people keep forgetting we’re still in a pandemic,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton. Now the recovery doesn’t only have to fix what was lost, but the “scars and wounds have to heal” after hard-hit workers and industries reevaluated their futures, Swonk said.
Swonk pointed to actor William Shatner, who blasted into space several days ago and drew a comparison to what’s unfolding in the economy: “We’re seeing some friction upon reentry.”
• Wage growth spikes for some. As many companies tried to reopen rapidly, they complained that it was difficult to find workers who were willing to accept the same pay and conditions that had been offered pre-pandemic. So a number of companies hiked wages to try to lure workers away from other jobs. This pushed up income, especially for workers who are willing to jump ship for a new employer.
Workers who switch jobs almost always earn larger raises than those who stick at the same employer, but that gap has opened to widest point in more than two decades. Job switchers got a typical hourly raise of about 5.4% from a year earlier, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s wage tracker, which analyzes Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Rising wages can be a good thing, giving workers more money to spend to help the economy grow. But economists worry about the ripple effects of rising wages at the same time that companies are struggling to fill more than 10 million empty jobs. If employers hike wages to attract workers, they may in turn have to pass those higher labor costs on to consumers in the form of higher prices. That could send inflation even higher.
• Will price growth persist? For months, officials at the Fed and White House have argued that inflation is a “transitory,” or temporary, feature of the economic recovery, like an old car lurching into gear. The expectation from many top Washington economic officials is that once supply chains have time to clear their backlogs, inflation will settle down closer to the Fed’s 2% annual target, sometime next year.
But that message is becoming increasingly hard to defend. “Temporary” has lasted for months, and it will last for months more. The September consumer price index shows annual price growth came in at or above 5% for the fifth consecutive month. Plus, last month’s rising food and shelter costs together contributed to more than half of the monthly increase of all items, when seasonally adjusted, making it harder for people to afford everyday expenses. Wages are rising, but that increase is getting eaten up by higher costs.
Throughout the pandemic, new and used cars have been a litmus test for the country’s supply chain issues and related price hikes. The market relies heavily on trade-ins and auto parts, which are in low supply amid a global microchip shortage. Used cars and trucks have driven a surge in inflation this year and are up a whopping 52% since September 2019.
But the Fed and the White House don’t only have to control inflation. They also have to control the way they talk about it. Consumers may be watching the signals Washington’s leaders send about whether higher prices are sticking around. One Fed official is ditching the word “transitory” altogether, saying it gives the public a false expectation that high prices will cool in a short time frame.
“It’s not just the time, it’s whether this is becoming a little more embedded in the underlying inflation trends. That’s what we were thinking in terms of ‘transitory,’” said Tim Duy, an economist and Fed expert at the University of Oregon. “And increasingly, I would say it looks like it appears that the price pressures are more widespread, and as a result, more likely to result in elevated underlying inflation going forward.”
Restaurants’ bottom lines have recovered with surprising speed in recent months. Data released by the Census Bureau on Friday show restaurant sales topped $72 billion in August - about in line with the level that would have been expected had the pandemic never happened. But employment in the sector in September remained about a million jobs below its prerecession levels, even as employers posted a near-record number of job openings - 1.5 million in August alone. And the recovery has been uneven. Some restaurants are doing much better than others.
The disconnect is likely related to the pandemic, as high levels of covid-19 cases appear to be related to falling restaurant employment. In Detroit, Nya Marshall remembers when the delta variant came “knocking at everyone’s door” over the summer.
Going into the fall, Marshall is running her restaurant, Ivy Kitchen, with reduced hours and shifts. She said workers did not rush back on the payrolls when unemployment benefits expired and that many are leaving the industry altogether, especially while child care is a pressing concern. Business is still down 52 percent compared to pre-covid levels. And Marshall knows she’s not alone.
“Delta is here, and there is a misconception that the restaurants have recovered, that we’re back to where we were,” Marshall said. “People are not comfortable coming out. And if they do, we’re fortunate the patio is still open. But patio season is ending soon.”
• Supply chains are slammed. Why all that inflation? Prices for used cars and other import-reliant items have risen rapidly as covid-19 wreaked havoc on global supply chains that were already stretched thin by Americans’ prolonged pandemic-era goods-buying binge. Many of the goods that are successfully offloaded from ships end up stranded in U.S. ports as trucking companies struggle to hire and rail yards suffer their own backlogs.
Before the pandemic, container ships would usually sail directly from China to a berth at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. But since the first pandemic winter, more and more container ships have needed to wait in San Pedro Bay for a chance to dock and unload their cargo, peaking at 40 ships in February. Coronavirus cases dropped in the spring, and the backlog of ships started to go down. As the delta variant emerged in the United States, though, the number of waiting ships spiked alongside coronavirus cases. More than 70 ships waited offshore on Sept. 19.
Meanwhile, cargo languishes on container ships. Delays in getting cargo off container ships are passed on through the supply chain. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell told lawmakers last month that the supply-side constraints on the economy have, “in some cases, gotten worse,” adding that “we need those supply blockages to alleviate, to abate before inflation can come down.”
The Biden administration several days ago announced a 24/7 operation at a key U.S. port and is working with major importers to clear a path for cargo ahead of the holiday season. Companies like Walmart, FedEx and UPS have also committed to using the extended hours at the Port of Los Angeles to offload shipping containers contributing to the freight backlog.
Pulling off a round-the-clock effort will depend on cooperation with foreign-owned shipping companies and operators across the transportation sphere, said Frank Ponce De Leon, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s Coast Committeeman for the Coast Longshore Division.
“This problem is not going to disappear in one day, in one month. It’s going to be a continued problem for a while now,” Ponce De Leon said. “There are things that can change . . . not only on the docks, but for the trucking industry, for the warehousing industry, the railroad industry. We can’t move cargo without those three parts of the puzzles.”
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The Washington Post’s Laura Reiley and David J. Lynch contributed to this report.
Redington’s Wyatt Pinard, left, and Dallas Mattson, right, tackle Houston’s Noah Whitted during their ASAA Division III state football championship game at Service High on Saturday. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)
The Redington Huskies gathered around assistant coach Wade Schirack near midfield Saturday afternoon for one final “dog check” — he screamed those words and the players responded.
They roared back with louds barks — the sound of football champions.
Redington scored the First National Bowl Division III title game’s first 24 points and cruised to a 46-12 win over neighboring rival Houston at Service High. The small school located in Wasilla won its first state crown in its seventh year of existence and capped a perfect 9-0 season.
“We’re really more than just a team,” said Huskies senior defensive stalwart Mason Brouillet. “Every day, we sit together at lunch, get to know each other. We hang out away from school, and really got that chemistry going.”
Senior quarterback Wayde Bowman tossed four touchdown passes — two to Bryce Murdock. Trevor Bowman and Logan Seymore each caught one. Jaden Spaulding scored a pair of rushing touchdowns.
Redington’s Justus Spaulding, right, and Wayde Bowman, left, celebrate with teammates and coaches after winning the Division III state football championship game Saturday. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)
In a season of firsts for Redington, the Huskies also beat Houston for the first time during their regular season meeting. They turned the trick again Saturday.
Seymore also picked up an interception and recovered an onside kick.
Houston scored on Cody Wyrick’s interception return for a touchdown and Brandon Hina’s 49-yard touchdown reception from Colton Bunn.
Houston was the defending DIII champ. The Hawks finished 4-5.
Veteran journalist Matt Nevala can be found on social media at @MNevala9.
Redington’s Dallas Mattson, left, attempts to run past Houston’s Braden Cork before being pushed out of bounds. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)
With seconds remaining in the game, Redington head football coach Matthias Weinberger begins to celebrate his team’s Division III state football championship win over Houston on Saturday. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)
Houston’s Noah Whitted, left, attempts to dodge a tackle from Redington’s John Gosh on Saturday. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)
In this Oct. 12, 2021, photo, David and Wendy Mills, parents of Kailee Mills who was killed four years ago in an automobile accident when riding in the back seat without a seat belt, with a photo of their daughter at their home in Spring, Texas. The teenager was riding in the back seat of a car to a Halloween party in 2017 just a mile from her house when she unfastened her seat belt to slide next to her friend and take a selfie. Moments later, the driver veered off the road and the car flipped, ejecting her. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke) (Michael Wyke/)
WASHINGTON — After their 16-year-old daughter died in a car crash, David and Wendy Mills wondered whether she would be alive if federal rules on rear seat belt warnings had been issued on time.
Four years later, with no rule and traffic fatalities spiking, they’re still at a loss over the inaction.
The teenager was riding in the back seat of a car to a Halloween party in 2017 just a mile from her house in Spring, Texas, when she unfastened her seat belt to slide next to her friend and take a selfie. Moments later, the driver veered off the road and the car flipped, ejecting her.
Kailee died instantly. Her three friends who remained buckled walked away with minor scrapes.
A 2012 law had directed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an agency of the Department of Transportation, to implement safety rules requiring car manufacturers to install a warning to drivers if an unbuckled passenger is sitting in a rear seat. The agency had three years to act.
But the regulation wasn’t done when Kailee climbed into her friend’s car, though it’s been estimated that it could save hundreds of lives each year. It’s one of more than a dozen car safety rules now years overdue, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.
The ever-growing docket has become one of the biggest tests for the federal agency since its founding in 1970, when public pressure led by safety activist Ralph Nader spurred NHTSA’s mission to “save lives, prevent injuries and reduce economic costs due to road traffic crashes.”
Advocates worry that the agency has lost focus and risks getting bogged down under President Joe Biden, at a time of increasing road accidents and reckless driving during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We need a call to action,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. He called the pandemic surge in accidents a “car crash epidemic.”
The rules backlog would only increase with the sweeping technological requirements included in a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill pending in Congress, from new breathalyzer devices that would disable a car if a driver is drunk to stiffer standards for reporting safety recalls.
Currently, the 600-employee federal agency lacks a permanent leader. Its acting administrator is Steven Cliff, a former deputy executive officer at the California Air Resources Board, which regulates auto emissions, a key component of Biden’s climate agenda.
“Government should not take this long to act on safety,” said David Mills, who started a Houston-area foundation in Kailee’s honor aimed at promoting seat belt safety. The foundation keeps a list, known as “Kailee’s Angels,” of some of the teenagers around the country who died in car crashes after failing to buckle up.
“It’s devastating to families,” he said.
The rear seat belt reminder requirement is now scheduled to start moving through the cumbersome regulatory process in January, but a final rule could be years away. The agency in the past has repeatedly blown past deadlines, including those promised in federal court.
The AP review of NHTSA’s rule-making activities under the last three presidents found at least 13 auto safety rules that are years overdue based on deadlines set in laws passed by Congress.
In most cases, those rules are opposed by powerful industries as expensive, outdated or restrictive. Other pending rules have been slowed by the bureaucracy or taken a back seat to other priorities under Democratic presidents. For example, a 2011 initiative that large commercial vehicles be equipped with devices to limit their speed was recently put on indefinite hold by Biden.
President Donald Trump sidetracked at least four major road safety proposals, including medical evaluations of commercial truck drivers for sleep apnea.
Pending rules include side-impact standards for child car seats, originally due in 2014. Attorneys general of 17 states and the District of Columbia wrote to the Biden administration in July, urging immediate action. Other pending rules would require car manufacturers to maintain records of safety defects for at least 10 years, as required by Congress and originally due in 2017, and anti-ejection protection measures for larger buses, due in 2014.
Standards for “smart” car headlights, begun in 2018, are incomplete despite car industry support. Smart headlights would adjust a high intensity light to oncoming traffic, so drivers don’t have to toggle between high and low beams.
NHTSA declined to make Cliff available for comment. The agency instead released a list of steps it has taken to address auto safety, including recently announced proposed fuel economy standards that Biden has promoted to confront climate change.
The agency points in part to plans to require or set standards for automatic emergency braking systems on new passenger vehicles and heavy trucks, a reversal from the Trump administration, and to move forward on some of the delayed regulations, though it did not offer firm guarantees on timing.
NHTSA has pledged to require what it said are rigorous testing standards for autonomous vehicles and set up a national database to document automated-vehicle crashes. It has prodded electric vehicle maker Tesla to recall dark touch screens and is investigating the company’s Autopilot partially automated driving system’s failure to stop for parked emergency vehicles.
In recent public remarks, Cliff said the agency is committed to address rising traffic fatalities and he stressed a “transformational and collaborative approach to safety.”
Jason Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, and other consumer groups have been urging Biden to quickly nominate an agency leader. The last Senate-confirmed NHTSA administrator served under President Barack Obama until 2017.
“You have a Biden administration it seems across the board more interested in acting in a regulatory fashion than the previous administration,” Levine said. “That’s why there’s so much excitement, but also quite frankly frustration that things aren’t moving with a greater sense of urgency.”
The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the trade association representing all auto manufacturers but Tesla, declined to comment for this story.
Automakers have made some progress on safety issues on their own or in voluntary agreements with the government. For instance, 20 companies agreed with NHTSA in 2016 to make automatic emergency braking standard on at least 95% of their new passenger vehicles by Sept. 1, 2022. At least 10 have already met the goal. Two years ago, 20 auto companies agreed to install electronic reminders to check back seats so drivers don’t leave children in hot cars. The industry would install the reminders in new vehicles by the 2025 model year.
The Governors Highway Safety Association has been strongly pushing for rear seat belt reminders since 2015, noting back then that fewer passengers were buckling up in the back when riding in increasingly popular Uber, Lyft and other for-hire vehicles.
Last year, over half of all crash fatalities involved unbelted drivers or occupants, the highest level since 2012, according to NHTSA.
An estimated 38,680 people were killed in traffic crashes in 2020, the highest total since 2007, even though total miles driven dropped due to stay-at-home orders at the beginning of the pandemic. In the first three months of 2021, 8,730 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes, a 10.5% increase from the same period last year.
More than 800 people who were unbelted in the back seat die in car crashes each year, and an analysis of NHTSA’s data by the governors’ group found that wearing seat belts would have saved more than half of them.
Those grim statistics and rising fatalities have spurred states in recent months to seek ways to boost seat belt use, such as with “Click it or Ticket” law enforcement campaigns. In Connecticut, a law signed by Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont took effect this month that requires all rear seat passengers 16 and older to wear a seat belt. Those under 16 already had been required to buckle up.
Adkins said state highway safety officials were heartened to see Biden elevate Jennifer Homendy, a former congressional staffer and member of the National Transportation Safety Board who has spent two decades working on transportation safety, to NTSB chair. In recent months, she’s appeared with Lamont to promote the new rear seat belt law, railed against Tesla’s “misleading” marketing that she says puts lives at risk and called for stronger federal safety standards.
But as NTSB head, she has no actual regulatory authority, and the buzz at a recent governors’ safety conference was the impact she could have if she were NHTSA’s administrator.
“We need a NHTSA administrator who is confirmed and has the political ability to get some things done,” Adkins said. “There’s no time for a learning curve. We’re in a bad spot in traffic safety. We’ve got work to do. And we need the administration’s attention.”
Various NHTSA delays have led to a patchwork of safety features initiated by the auto industry that have no clear minimum level of standards, said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. Many of the features also are typically sold in high-end cars or luxury packages, in effect imposing an “upcharge” for consumer safety.
She noted that a 2008 congressional mandate to install backup cameras in passenger vehicles took NHTSA 10 years and a lawsuit by her group and others before the rule was finally implemented; the original deadline was 2011.
Meanwhile, the European Union began requiring seat belt reminder systems in the front and rear seats of new cars in September 2019.
“I can’t say the U.S. regulator of the auto industry is at all on track,” Chase said. “We’re years behind at this point. I don’t want to be critical because they are still in their first year, but the infancy of the new administration will soon expire, and it’s time for them to move forward.”
Yen reported from Washington and Austin, Texas, and Krisher from Detroit.
Another year, another Cook Inlet Conference championship for Dimond High flag football.
Sophomore Mai Makeati ran for 125 yards and junior quarterback Kali Hibbert scored a pair of rushing touchdowns Thursday night to lift the Lynx past West 12-6 at Dimond High. Dimond won the league’s title for the fourth time in the last five years and nine of the last 13 conference crowns.
Dimond finished with a 16-2 record. West, 14-3, appeared in the title game for the sixth consecutive season, placing second every time.
Hibbert scored on a 1-yard run in the second quarter and from 2-yards out in the fourth. West senior quarterback Lupe’lani Vaaia connected with senior Frida Vargas on an 8-yard pass play for a touchdown with 16 seconds remaining. Dimond completed the game with one kneel down.
Mateaki and Maile Wilcox totaled seven defensive pulls for the Lynx, and four of Lauren Tufaga’s six pulls went for a loss.
CIC flag football championships
Year Winner Runner Up Score
2121 Dimond West 12-6
2020 Dimond West 22-0
2019 South West 21-12
2018 Dimond West 26-6
2017 Dimond West 19-18
2016 Chugiak West 12-7
2015 East Dimond 19-6
2014 Dimond Service 6-0
2013 Dimond South 33-7
2012 Dimond West 14-6
2011 East West 13-12 (OT)
2010 Dimond East 21-15
2009 Dimond Bartlett 32-12
2008 Chugiak Bartlett 13-6
2007 Chugiak Service 33-7
2006 Bartlett Chugiak 19-18
The National Transportation Safety Board is looking for an unknown plane that reportedly collided with another aircraft in midair earlier this week and kept flying.
Around 1 p.m. Wednesday, a Cessna 180 was struck while flying near Sutton in a collision that resulted in substantial damage to the wing of the plane, NTSB Alaska chief Clint Johnson said Saturday.
The pilot of the Cessna 180 was able to land safely, and no injuries were reported. But the NTSB is still searching for the other plane, which Johnson said continued flying, and its pilot has not yet come forward to report the accident.
“We don’t think there was any damage to the other plane, but we don’t know that because it kept going,” Johnson said.
“This is an accident, and we’re trying to figure out what took place. We’d like to get both sides of the story,” he said. “So we are actively looking for that airplane.”
Authorities are reviewing air traffic control recordings in the area but haven’t been able to come up with any further information so far, Johnson said.
The NTSB encouraged anyone with information about the collision to call its Alaska Regional Office at 907-782-4848.
Thirty cars wait in line before a COVID-19 testing site opens on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021 at the Loussac Library in Anchorage. Alaska has the highest seven-day case rate per 100,000 in the country, and over 1 in 10 tests recently have been coming back positive. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)
As Alaska continues to lead the nation in new daily COVID-19 cases per capita, one important mitigation tool — testing — is currently lagging behind other states.
“We used to be testing about twice the national average,” Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said Wednesday. “We are now testing about a third of the national average at this point, so our testing has really decreased compared to the rest of the United States.”
That decrease is mostly a reflection of other states boosting testing rather than any reductions in Alaska, Zink said.
“I would say it’s less that Alaska’s testing has significantly decreased, and it’s more than the rest of the nation has significantly increased,” she said.
State data shows that Alaska has been conducting a continually high volume of tests in recent months, especially compared to other points in the pandemic.
The state’s coronavirus testing dashboard shows that a similar number of tests were performed most days in August and September as compared to last November and December, during the state’s previous surge in cases and hospitalizations.
Still, data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday ranked Alaska in 40th place among all states based on its per capita testing over the last week.
Zink said a major reason for the shift in national ranking is that while other states in the Lower 48 have ramped up widespread “screening” testing for school districts, universities, workplaces and events, that strategy hasn’t taken off in Alaska in the same way.
A lot of testing is still happening in Alaska — just not as much as in other states.
“Some states are moving to kind of a ‘test to stay’ within the school district, and then also major universities have been another big powerhouse of purchasing screening tests,” she said. “Involvement hasn’t been quite the same up here.”
Testing has long been considered an important way of detecting coronavirus cases and early and preventing widespread transmission. Since the pandemic arrived in the state in spring 2020, over 3 million coronavirus tests have been conducted in Alaska.
In Anchorage over the last few months, a dramatic rise in demand for testing ultimately led the city to change its guidance and decrease testing hours.
A woman with Capstone Clinic prepares to administer a COVID-19 test for a patient at the new testing site outside the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage on Sept. 7, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)
In June, the state’s largest city was conducting around 100 to 200 tests a day. But by September, when the highly contagious delta variant was pushing case counts to new pandemic highs, Anchorage was at times conducting as many as 1,900 tests a day.
That was far more than the city had expected to pay for, and municipal officials cut hours at testing locations in an effort to preserve testing availability as funds were running low, Anchorage Health Department director Joe Gerace said last week.
On Tuesday, the Anchorage Assembly approved an additional funding request from the Bronson administration that would provide enough money to restore testing levels through November, beginning Monday.
It is difficult to tell from Anchorage’s testing numbers whether the municipality’s recent changes led to a decrease in tests conducted since that data is preliminary, a health department spokesperson said in an email.
But statewide, the average percentage of tests coming back positive has continued climbing, reaching about 11% positivity this week — a record high, and an indication of widespread transmission and not enough testing. (Epidemiologists say it’s ideal to keep that percentage below at least 5%.)
As part of a broader mitigation plan, CDC school guidance recommends regular “screening testing” for staff and students who are unvaccinated.
Another possible reason for Alaska’s lower testing numbers compared to the rest of the country is that the state relies heavily on rapid tests, especially in rural communities off the road system where sending PCR tests to state and commercial labs requires may pose more of a challenge.
Rapid tests have been in short supply nationally in recent weeks, which has led to some “testing limitations in the space,” Zink said.
The big testing supply shortage impacted one rural health care provider and led them to conserve certain supplies in order to keep villages stocked with rapid tests, said Jenna Royer, lead medical laboratory scientist at the Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center, the Tanana Chiefs Conference’s Fairbanks facility.
Rapid testing is important in village settings, Royer said, because of how quickly the virus can spread through communities.
“Knowing that somebody is testing positive right away is going to make things a lot more safer for Alaskans out in the villages,” Royer said. “It’s going to be able to provide them with care a little quicker, they’re going to be able to quarantine and keep the rest of their family and friends safe.”
Early on in the pandemic, Alaska’s coronavirus response included making tests widely and easily accessible across the state. As part of an aggressive strategy to protect a vulnerable and isolated health care system, Alaska was testing thousands of asymptomatic seafood workers and travelers coming into the state.
By summer 2020, the state had quickly become one of the most-tested states in the nation.
These days, Zink said she recommended that employers and schools look at testing options for individual workplaces rather than relying on the city’s larger testing clinics “because when everyone relies on a few centers at once, they can become very overwhelmed very quickly.”
And Alaskans should continue to get tested if they have any symptoms that have been linked to the virus, even mild ones.
“If you think it’s allergies, if you think it’s just a runny nose, it might be COVID,” Zink said. “If you have any possible symptom, regardless of vaccine status, you’ve got to get tested.”
Harris County Medical Examiner van exits the Memorial Hermann Hospital transporting a Harris County Pct. 4 deputy who was shot and killed to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Houston. Three constable deputies were shot in an ambush early Saturday morning while working an extra shift at a Houston bar. (Marie D. De Jesús/Houston Chronicle via AP) (Marie D. De Jesús/)
HOUSTON — A man with an AR-15-style rifle ambushed three constable deputies outside a Houston bar early Saturday, killing one and leaving two others wounded, authorities in Texas said.
Authorities detained one person near the scene but he is not believed to be the shooter, according to the Houston Police Department which is investigating the shooting.
The constable deputies were working extra security jobs at the 45 Norte Sports Bar when two of them responded to a witness’ report of a suspected robbery outside the business around 2:15 a.m., according to Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman.
The two deputies were trying to arrest someone when another person ambushed them, Herman’s office said in a statement posted on Facebook. That man had an AR-15-style rifle and opened fire on them from behind, according to authorities. The third deputy was shot when he came to help.
One of the first deputies who was shot, Kareem Atkins, died from his wounds, according to the constable’s office. Atkins, 30, recently returned to work after parental leave and leaves behind a wife and 2-month-old baby, the statement said.
A Harris County Pct. 4 deputy exits the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences mourning the death of a deputy who was shot and killed in north Houston, Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. (Marie D. De Jesús/Houston Chronicle via AP) (Marie D. De Jesús/)
The constable’s office identified the other deputies as Darrell Garrett, 28, and Juqaim Barthen, 26. Garrett was shot in the back and was in intensive care after undergoing surgery. The office did not provide an update on Barthen’s condition, but Herman previously had told reporters that he was shot in the foot.
It was not yet clear whether the deputies returned fire, Houston Police Executive Assistant Chief James Jones told reporters.
Constables are licensed peace officers who perform various law enforcement functions, according to the Texas Association of Counties.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, right, and Leader of the Labour Party Keir Starmer carry flowers as they arrive at the scene where a member of Parliament was stabbed Friday, in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, England, Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. David Amess, a long-serving member of Parliament was stabbed to death during a meeting with constituents at a church in Leigh-on-Sea on Friday, in what police said was a terrorist incident. A 25-year-old man was arrested in connection with the attack, which united Britain's fractious politicians in shock and sorrow. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali) (Alberto Pezzali/)
LEIGH-ON-SEA, England — David Amess was a man of the people, a hard-working British lawmaker who had no grand political ambitions beyond serving those who had elected him for nigh-on 40 years.
His shocking death at the hands of a knife-wielding man at a church where he was meeting voters has reopened questions about the security needs of Britain’s members of Parliament as they go about their daily work.
Police, who have said it was a terrorist-related attack, continued Saturday to question a 25-year-old British man.
For the second time in five years, Britain’s political leaders put their differences aside to gather Saturday morning at the scene of a fallen colleague. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, stood side-by-side and laid flowers as they paid tribute to the long-serving lawmaker, who was stabbed to death less than 24 hours earlier.
The slaying of the 69-year-old Conservative lawmaker at a regular meeting with local voters has caused shock and anxiety across Britain’s political spectrum, not least because it is reminiscent of the 2016 murder of Labour lawmaker Jo Cox by a far-right extremist in her own small-town constituency.
“He was killed doing a job that he loves, serving his own constituents as an elected democratic member and, of course, acts of this are absolutely wrong, and we cannot let that get in the way of our functioning democracy,” British Home Secretary Priti Patel said after paying her respects to Amess at the church where he died.
Patel said she has convened meetings with the speaker of the House of Commons, police and U.K. security services to ensure “all measures are being put in place for the security of MPs so that they can carry on with their duties as elected democratic members.”
Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative lawmaker who gave first aid to a police officer stabbed at the gates of Parliament in 2017, said face-to-face meetings with voters should be temporarily halted, as they were during the recent coronavirus lockdowns, and replaced with online interactions.
Flowers are laid near the Belfairs Methodist Church in Eastwood Road North, in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, England, Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021 where British Conservative lawmaker David Amess died after being stabbed at a constituency surgery on Friday. Leaders from across the political spectrum came together Saturday to pay their respects to Amess who was stabbed to death in what police say was a terrorist-related attack. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali) (Alberto Pezzali/)
Amess suffered multiple stab wounds in the attack during his constituency meeting in the church in Leigh-on-Sea, a quintessentially English seaside town 40 miles east of London, that has become a magnet in recent years to those tired of life in the capital.
The Metropolitan Police said its early investigation “revealed a potential motivation linked to Islamist extremism,” without providing any details about the basis for that assessment. As part of the investigation, officers were searching two locations in the London area.
Amess, who had a wife and five children and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2015, died doing what he’d done countless times — listening to the concerns of residents in his seaside constituency of Southend West, which incorporates Leigh-on-Sea.
Under Britain’s parliamentary system, lawmakers have direct links with their local voters, often hosting open meetings, or “surgeries.” The meetings often take place in local churches and community halls and are publicly advertised. Amess himself posted online where he would be hosting his surgery on Friday.
“The reason he wanted to use the church was because he wanted to be where the people were,” said Rev. Clifford Newman at the Belfairs Methodist Church where Amess was killed. “And if you come to somewhere which is in the locality like Belfairs, as opposed to some ivory tower somewhere, people are more likely to feel easier, freer and more likely to open up to him.”
At the meetings, the topics raised can range from national matters such as the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic to more mundane issues such as requests for speed bumps on busy roads or a dispute over a neighbor’s fence. While members of Parliament don’t necessarily have the power to fix the problems directly, they can pressure officials at the national and local levels to get things done.
“I feel as if I have lost a family member. I feel that he was the family of Southend, he was the leader of Southend,” resident Erica Keane, 69, said. “And he was everywhere! He was at the football pitches, he was in the choirs, he was in the pubs. He was everywhere and he was Southend.”
Amess was clearly a popular lawmaker, winning 10 out of 10 elections since 1983. He was a social conservative on issues like capital punishment and abortion, an active supporter of animal rights and campaigned tirelessly on health matters such as obesity.
While never serving as a government minister, Amess was a fixer, a lawmaker able to forge alliances across the political divide. His door was seemingly always open to any new politician facing the centuries-old parliament.
Friday’s killing renewed concern about the risks politicians run as they go about their work. British politicians generally are not given police protection when meeting constituents — unlike the high-security measures that are in place in Parliament.
But the vitriol directed towards them has escalated in recent years, with many blaming the more polarized atmosphere on social media and the political divisions stoked by Britain’s departure from the European Union.
“We want to be accessible and approachable, but recently there has been more and more violent abuse,” Labour lawmaker Tanmanjeet Dhesi said.
Veteran Labour lawmaker Harriet Harman also said she would write to Johnson and ask him to back a non-partisan conference to review the safety of parliamentarians.
“Since Jo Cox’s tragic killing, we’ve had changes in our home security, we’ve had changes in security in Parliament, but we haven’t looked at the issue of how we go about that important business in our constituency, but do it in a safe way,” Harman told BBC radio. “I think we must do that now.”
Last year, in his own book “Ayes & Ears: A Survivor’s Guide to Westminster,” Amess wrote about what he called Cox’s “barbaric” murder and how security issues could spoil “the great British tradition” of voters’ easy access to their elected leaders.
He warned at the time “it could happen to any of us.”
Pylas contributed from London. Jo Kearney in Leigh-on-sea also contributed to this report.
Anchorage travelers are in a great spot right now regarding airline tickets, particularly when it comes to tickets within the U.S. You can literally fly across the country for just over $100 one-way.
But there are many ways to slice this cake. Not all fares are cheap. They’re not cheap on every flight, every day. Every seat, it seems, has its own price: in basic economy, in the main cabin and in premium class.
The price of your ticket depends on many things, including your final destination, whether there’s competition on the route and when you’re traveling.
Often, it’s the “when” component that really throws a wrench in the plans. Sure, your ticket back home to Denver might be very affordable in November ($283 round-trip). But if you want to go at Christmas (Dec. 23-Jan. 2), the price jumps to $807 round-trip.
The other spoiler for your travel plans is if you need to travel right away. Many Alaskans have gotten late-night calls from loved ones about a family emergency. It’s almost always a shock to discover that short-notice travel can break the bank. Between Anchorage and Denver, a last-minute one-way ticket can cost $459 on Alaska Airlines, or $498 one-way on United’s daily nonstop.
This fall, though, tickets are cheap. The combination of extra competition and a demand-killing pandemic means airlines are throwing everything they have against the wall to see what will stimulate demand.
One of the first levers that airlines pull is to drop the price of tickets for travel at least three weeks from the time you buy the ticket. If that doesn’t work, then they back it up to two weeks. In some markets, though, the competition is so tough that airlines abandon the advance purchase component completely. Last-minute travelers love that.
There are plenty of good deals for last-minute travelers right now. One important consideration to keep in mind, of course, is COVID-19: On top of weighing local virus concerns here, you’ll want to make sure you have a clear picture of the status of the pandemic and potential restrictions in place at your destination.
If you can wait three weeks, a one-way ticket from Anchorage to Seattle costs as little as $89 on Alaska or Delta. But if you want to fly tomorrow, the cost is $199 one-way. That’s a great price for last-minute travel on Alaska or Delta.
There are no last-minute deals on mileage tickets, though. Alaska Airlines charges 30,000 miles for a one-way, last-minute ticket. Delta is not much better: 21,500 SkyMiles, one-way.
It’s a little more to fly from Anchorage to Portland last minute. On Delta, it’s $264 one-way. Or, fly nonstop on Alaska Airlines for $305 one-way.
Anchorage-Los Angeles is a competitive market. So, the price is less. Alaska Airlines charges $250 one-way on the nonstop red-eye flight.
One of the best deals right now for last-minute travel is Anchorage-Kansas City. The cost is just $140 one-way on either Alaska Airlines or Delta.
Another surprise in the last-minute department is the group of nonstop flights that Alaska Airlines offers to Hawaii. Fly right away to either Honolulu or Maui for $218 one-way. Delta offers a good deal from Anchorage to Kona via Seattle for $227 one-way.
If you want to use your Alaska Airlines miles, it’s 20,000 miles each way. Those are excellent rates, whether you’re using cash or miles.
Tickets from Anchorage to Las Vegas also are priced low for last-minute travel: $194 one-way on either Alaska or Delta. You can even fly United for that price, via Denver.
Fly from Anchorage to Puerto Vallarta or Cabo San Lucas in Mexico for $209 one-way on Alaska or Delta. The return flights are a little more: $236 one-way.
My favorite transcontinental deal is Anchorage or Fairbanks to New York City for $116 one-way on Alaska or Delta. A trip to the Big Apple also is a great way to pad your mileage account, in your quest for MVP or MVP Gold status. Fly round-trip from Anchorage to Seattle and on to New York’s JFK airport. The trip will net you an extra 7,700 miles toward your elite status.
If you want some Florida sunshine immediately, hop aboard Delta tomorrow to Fort Myers. The cost is $101 one-way.
If you have your passport, you can fly from Anchorage to Costa Rica right away. There are two gateways: Costa Rica’s capital is San Jose and the second international airport is in Liberia, in the northwest corner of the country. Fly from Anchorage to either airport for about $590 round-trip on either United or Delta.
Usually, it takes me at least a couple of weeks to wrap up everything to take a trip. But sometimes, you just need to get out of town right away. I wish you fair winds on your journey.
Winchester, Steve Meyer, Lady, and Dad, when we were all still young in October 2013. (Photo by Steve Meyer)
“Well Bubs,” I said, using Winchester’s nickname, “I don’t know about you, but I don’t think my nerves can handle another day of this.” His blank stare in return suggested he didn’t care much one way or another about my nerves.
We had driven nonstop from Alaska, and had reached western South Dakota two days earlier than planned. I had intended to arrive the evening before the nonresident season opener, pick Christine up at the airport and be ready to hunt with friends the next day. We would hunt South Dakota for a couple of days and then head north and hunt with my dad in North Dakota.
Having spent my formative hunting years in North Dakota, one would expect my dad might have taken me across the border to the pheasant mecca of the world. He hadn’t, and when I asked him in later years why, he said he never saw a reason to travel for a few more birds in an unfamiliar area.
Dad and his hunting partner, Eddie, were homebody hunters, and rarely traveled far to hunt. Years of covering the same areas left them with a near-photographic memory of the country. Both had the enviable ability to know where the fauna of the area was at nearly any given time.
With a couple of days to kill, I figured Winchester and I would hunt for sharptail grouse and Hungarian partridge in the Grand River National Grasslands in the northwestern corner of South Dakota. A fine idea said the fellow at the Grasslands office, just watch out for the rattlesnakes. Snakes?
It was late October and typically temperatures in that part of the world have driven the snakes into hibernation. This year had been an exception with the midday temperatures in the 80s and the snakes active. “Just stay out of the prairie dog towns, you and your dog will be fine,” the fellow said.
Snakes terrify me for no good reason, but they do. But, I figured we could avoid the prairie dog towns easy enough. That worked until Winchester disappeared over a hill and, when I followed, found him coursing a hillside covered with the dirt mounds of the little digging dogs.
Winchester had no experience with snakes and I spent the day calling him in when he got anywhere close to the horizon. In other words, I squashed his hunting rhythm. He still found birds but it was not a fun day, and that night I decided we could find a better way to spend our next day.
That night, I called Dad to see how his hunting had been. The resident season had opened about a week before, and I expected Dad and his Labrador, Lady, would have collected numerous ringnecks by then.
“Haven’t taken one bird yet, and have only seen a few,” he said when I called. A combination of things had occurred for him to announce something I had never heard him say during an opening week of the pheasant season. Bird numbers were down, the corn fields hadn’t been harvested, and his old dog was having trouble getting around.
In a flash, I saw an opportunity to do something for the man who had given so much to me in the hunting arena. For the person I owed the most and could never repay, I figured Winchester could find him a pheasant.
I told Dad about the troubles with snakes, and since we had a free day, how about I just drive over during the night, and Winchester and I would meet him and give it another try. “Well, you can’t hunt here for a couple more days,” he said. “The only thing I can’t do is shoot,” I said, “and I don’t need to do that.”
Smiling to myself as the call ended, I turned to Winchester and told him I found him a job, and there wouldn’t be any snakes. He flipped over onto his back, feet straight in the air, his favored road position, as if to say, “Wake me when we get there.”
Traveling on rural roads is my favorite way to cover ground when there is no hurry. That part of the world is host to all sorts of wildlife and passes road time well. I thought about the coming morning and knew where we would start. Dad’s favorite cattail slough surrounded by several hundred acres of prairie grass, six miles northwest of his place. Winchester knows it well, and I could visualize how he would hunt it when told to “find the birds.” And he will, I thought.
Dad and Lady moving in to flush the rooster Winchester has on point in October 2015. (Photo by Steve Meyer)
It would be different from so many times in the past by the absence of Eddie, Dad’s best friend and hunting partner who had been a part of hunting for me since childhood. He had undergone back surgery and wouldn’t be up to that type of hunting just yet.
It never occurred to me that these two, my dad and Eddie, were getting old. At age 78, they were active and never missed an opportunity to hunt, scout, or catch some fish. They seemed timeless to me.
When I pulled into his yard at 5 a.m., I could see Dad pouring coffee into a couple of battered old cups, those reserved for hunting. The morning brought star-filled skies and frost, a good sign for the day.
The morning was seamless, as if we did it every day, as if I didn’t live 3,500 miles to the north.
We took separate vehicles to the slough. His old dog, Lady, liked to ride shotgun in his pickup, and you do what you can to keep the hunting dog happy.
We parked by the slough a half-hour before shooting time, rolled our windows down, and listened to the countryside wake up, like we had done my entire life. The silence confirming our ritual, with no need to say anything.
“Well, let’s see what that high-powered setter can do,” Dad said with a smile as he cracked his door. Ten minutes later, the GPS announced Winchester had a bird pinned. “He’s on the backside of the slough, if you can keep Lady in check, we’ll walk in and get you a pheasant,” I said through the grin that only comes from the fierce pride in that damn setter.
Lady stuck close to Dad as they walked up behind Winchester. The rooster’s cackle was interrupted by the shot, and a moment later, Lady bringing the bird to hand. Dad grinned at me and said, “He really is something, isn’t he.”
Dad and Lady with a rooster ringneck pheasant in October 2015. (Photo by Steve Meyer)
I couldn’t have been happier in that moment, and I couldn’t have known that we would never be able to hunt together again.
Some cultures believe the hunting partner relationship is more important than a marriage partner. I don’t know. I do know that taking time, no matter what it entails, to hunt with that person in their waning years is priceless. Make the time.
Steve Meyer is a longtime Alaskan and avid shooter who lives in Kenai.
Tone and Charles Deehr in Fairbanks, October 2021. (Photo courtesy Charles Deehr)
Charles Deehr will never forget his first red aurora. On Feb. 11, 1958, Deehr was a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He asked a Fulbright student from Norway named Tone to the Portland Symphony that night.
They went for a stroll on a golf course after the concert. Looking past the treetops, they noticed the sky was blood red.
People as far south as Mexico saw the red sky that night. Some thought Martians. Others thought Christ was visiting for the second time. In Portland, people thought a forest fire was causing the glow.
Deehr knew better, because he was studying the physics of Earth and space. Under the crimson sky, he was sure of two things: he and Tone were seeing a great red aurora, and he would ask her on another date.
The Deehrs have now been married 61 years. Charles — Chuck to his friends — was a space-physicist and aurora forecaster at the University of Alaska Fairbanks for most of that time. In decades of sky-watching in the north, he has seen a few red auroras, but not many.
Fringes of red and blue hanging from aurora curtains — the result of particles from the sun reacting with nitrogen in the upper atmosphere — happen often, but the great displays that flood the sky with diffuse red light are rare.
Red aurora displays happen so high in the sky that they are often the only form of aurora ever seen by people in the mid-latitudes.
In A.D. 37, a great red aurora showed itself to the citizens of Rome. Those in London gazed up at a red sky in September 1839. A blazing display in 1938 lit the sands of the Sahara Desert in northern Africa. Deehr and his date witnessed one of the most spectacular displays in 1958. Others have happened in 1989, 2000 and 2001.
A rare red aurora over Alaska in February 1958. (Photo courtesy Geophysical Institute)
Great red auroras are rare because they require a perfect mix of heavenly conditions.
“To get a pure red aurora, you need two things from the sun,” Deehr said. “Lots of solar flares with ultraviolet radiation to heat the Earth’s atmosphere, and lots of coronal mass ejections to power the Earth’s magnetospheric generator of aurora.”
The green aurora that northerners enjoy almost every dark night is a product of particles cast off by the sun that stream outward into space. This solar wind takes a day to two to reach Earth. It flows over the planet and reacts with Earth’s magnetic field. In the upper atmosphere, this electrical discharge reacts with gases, causing them to glow in the same way electricity fires up a neon light.
Green auroras occur at about 60 miles above Earth. Pure red auroras are much higher, from about 200 to 300 miles up, which allows people closer to the equator to see them. An important gas remaining at that altitude is oxygen, and electrons that excite the oxygen atoms there produce a red light as pure as a laser.
Cameras and phones that can capture more light wavelengths than our eyes sometimes show red in aurora photos in which the photographer only saw greens. Red auroras have to be 10 times as bright as green auroras for us to see that color with the naked eye.
Red auroras are unpredictable, but in the past they have tended to bunch themselves around periods when the solar cycle — an 11-year period of sun activity — features lots of solar activity.
Today, Chuck Deehr is a professor emeritus at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He doesn’t expect to ever see a red aurora as brilliant as the night of Feb. 11, 1958, but some things — like a first date that leads to a 63-year partnership, four daughters and seven grandchildren — happen only once in a lifetime.
FILE - This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, yellow, emerging from the surface of cells, blue/pink, cultured in the lab. The sample was isolated from a patient in the U.S. According to an analysis by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published Tuesday, April 6, 2021 in JAMA Pediatrics, most children with a serious inflammatory illness linked to the coronavirus had initial COVID-19 infections with no symptoms or only mild ones, new U.S. research shows. (NIAID-RML via AP, File)
In the early stages of the novel coronavirus pandemic, I wrote an essay that suggested the new viral strain beginning to wreak havoc around the world might be viewed as a kind of teacher, instead of simply an “evil enemy,” as so many of our nation’s political leaders described it to be.
As I noted then, one of the things I’ve come to admire about many Indigenous cultures, including Alaska’s Native peoples, is the idea or belief — as I’ve come to understand it — that other forms of life can be our teachers, our guides. Without going into that too deeply here, I think the coronavirus offers some lessons for us. Some food for thought, if that’s easier to digest.
Early on, I gave this example: The coronavirus sweeping through our human world reminds us that we’re part of nature, not separate from it. More than that, we’re not “above” nature, not superior to it. We — and by “we,” I mean America’s mainstream culture and too many of the people we’ve chosen as our leaders — like to think we’re in control, or at least we act as if we’re in control.
We humans imagine we are calling the shots, we’re deciding what’s best for us, the rest of the world be damned — or at least ignored. But as the wiser among us have warned across the years, we do so at our peril. There are consequences to pay for our dismissive, egocentric, destructive notions and actions.
Climate change is teaching us the same lesson. The problem is that so far it’s been a slow-motion crisis
— though that is changing. Even with all the extreme events of recent years and the clear evidence of major climatic shifts worldwide along with their impacts, not enough of humanity has so far been threatened in the here and now to get our full attention, to make us change our behaviors.
Enter the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic, which gained our attention — one might even say demanded it — in a remarkably short time. And in the many months — nearly two years, in fact — since it first made the jump to humans, the virus has ably demonstrated that our species is still not in control of it, even after some scientific wizardry produced a number of effective vaccines in record time.
Through its own processes and in an impressively short period of time, the virus evolved an especially contagious and deadly form, the “delta variant,” which has wreaked havoc even in countries with plenty of vaccine.
Does any nation come immediately to mind?
Despite all its wealth, scientific expertise, and medical know-how, the United States has experienced enormous suffering of many different kinds, much of it self-inflicted, particularly in recent months, after we Americans figured we’d “beaten” the coronavirus.
As the news media has repeatedly reported, that suffering has not been uniformly experienced across our country. “Red” states with populations that are largely politically and religiously conservative, have fared worst this year, for one simple reason: the refusal of many people to get vaccinated and wear masks, despite overwhelming evidence that those two actions best help to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
As President Joe Biden — among others — has repeatedly observed, the United States is now experiencing “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
There’s no better example of this new reality than right here in Alaska, which recently has experienced new COVID-19 case rates higher than any other state — or nation.
During this newest surge, both locally and elsewhere, the virus continues to offer us lessons, if we’d only pay attention.
For instance: Denial is among the most troublesome human traits and lies at the heart of many of our species’ woes. Not that we should need reminding, but denial has played a key role in the most recent COVID-19 surge: denial that the virus is real, that vaccines are both safe and effective, that young and healthy people can become deathly sick because of it, on and on.
That denial has been fed by another troublesome reality — and again, we shouldn’t need reminding: technological advances can be a curse as well as a blessing.
The internet and associated technologies have contributed to the “silo effect.” People can now easily find just about any information — or misinformation — on assorted social media platforms, including what’s espoused by self-styled “experts” who feed implicit prejudices, fears and paranoia. This has contributed mightily to a widespread belief in conspiracy theories and alternate realities.
Who would have guessed that a substantial portion of Alaskans and other Americans would place more faith in ivermectin, a drug intended to treat parasitic worms, than COVID-19 vaccines?
We’ve been taught, again, that self-proclaimed patriots, like true believers, can be a dangerous lot. The insistence on individual rights and the freedom to do whatever one pleases, at the expense of the common good, has played a huge role in COVID-19′s resurgence.
The pandemic has accentuated the best and worst of human behavior. We need look no farther than Anchorage to see the selfless and heroic actions of front-line workers and also the appalling words and actions of the self-righteous “haters” who ridicule and threaten the very people who might end up saving their lives.
Those who’ve been paying attention have also witnessed the advantages of privilege — and the costs to those who lack it — across the world. Wealthy, technologically advanced nations like the U.S. have had access to an overabundance of vaccines, while poorer countries have received minuscule amounts of the lifesaving medicines. The maddening irony, of course, is that so many in our nation refuse to accept what other countries beg to receive, too often in vain.
It’s time — beyond time — to stop treating the Earth and its myriad inhabitants so badly, because eventually our actions are only going to hurt ourselves.
I’d like to think we can see the wisdom, the rightness, of respect and compassion for all life. But if nothing else we might consider our own self-interest.
So yes, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from the coronavirus pandemic, of many different kinds. Let’s hope more of us start paying attention to what the virus has to teach us; and then, most importantly, consider what actions benefit the greater good while behaving more respectfully toward each other and the Earth. In the bigger picture, it’s the only home we’ve got.
Anchorage nature writer and wildlands/wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit is a published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.”
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.
The Alaska Capitol is shown on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, in Juneau, Alaska. There is interest among lawmakers and Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy in settling a dispute over the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend program, but no consensus on what the program should look like going forward. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer) (Becky Bohrer/)
Alaska is a challenging place to live. The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed our economy and exacerbated many of the factors that make it difficult to live and work in Alaska. We have the highest health care costs in the nation while our health care system is strained to its breaking point. We pay extremely high energy prices just as many experts are predicting costs will skyrocket this winter. Alaskans also face high costs for food, housing and other necessities like child care and transportation.
Alaska is also the best place to live. That’s why we live here and why we are dedicated to the long-term success of our great state. However, success depends on putting Alaska’s fiscal house in order and ending the political dysfunction that continues to destabilize our economy and the Alaska way of life. That’s why the four of us are working together, to push for action.
This week, Alaskans received Permanent Fund dividend, or PFD, checks of $1,114. Unfortunately, the value was not set using the established formula in state law, nor was the amount set on the much-talked-about 50-50 split of the annual Percent of Market Value, or POMV, draw.
Instead, it was determined at the last possible moment based on how much money was left over in the budget. Fiscal work was to continue in hopes to send out an additional check.
Significant progress was made during the third special session through the Joint Comprehensive Fiscal Plan Working Group established on the last day of the second special session. This group did great work this summer when the members broadly agreed on what must be part of a comprehensive fiscal plan. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn progress after that was slow.
Now we are called into a fourth special session to further develop and implement a comprehensive fiscal plan and to permanently protect the PFD. They both go hand in hand toward stabilizing our economy and giving all Alaskans certainty to the future. Our work isn’t done.
The working group’s recommendations are a great starting point for the hard work of drafting, deliberating and ultimately passing legislation to fix Alaska’s fiscal problems.
We view a statutory PFD as a contract between the government and the people of Alaska. Some people need the PFD — especially right now due to the pandemic; some don’t, but we cannot deny the impact it has on our economy. Alaska needs this issue resolved.
No matter your views about the size of the PFD, we can all agree it is a bad idea to let lawmakers arbitrarily set the amount based on the way the political winds are blowing that day. Ignoring state law breaks the trust of Alaskans while also setting a dangerous precedent for future Legislatures. Without changing the formula, voters are denied a voice at the polls through a potential referendum vote on whether the new formula is acceptable or not.
As part of a comprehensive fiscal plan, we support the payment of a supplemental PFD payment as soon as possible. This payment would do so much good for those who are struggling to make it through this pandemic. It’s the right and fair thing to do.
There are multiple reasons Alaskans support a dividend. Many see the royalty tie to our vast resources, while others see the benefit to our economy and how it uplifts working families. The specifics of the formula can be worked out, but we can’t allow disputes about the PFD to continue to deadlock the budgeting process and the work we were elected to do.
Finally, it’s time for lawmakers and the governor to put aside the campaign rhetoric and embrace the language of state leaders. It’s time to do less finger-pointing and come together to make good public policy. It’s time to sit down and do what’s best for Alaska. That’s exactly what we will be doing, and we hope that the rest of our colleagues will join us in that discussion to secure Alaska’s future.
Rep. Sara Rasmussen,R-Anchorage; Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage; Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage; and Rep. Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiaġvik, are members of the Alaska House of Representatives.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to email@example.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.
Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. Alaska Public Offices Commission sign. (Alex DeMarban / ADN)
On Monday, the Alaska Public Offices Commission — the state’s enforcer of laws related to campaign finance and lobbying — levied a major fine against Mayor Dave Bronson for serious reporting issues relating to the funding of his campaign. The group found that Bronson’s campaign filed reports late, misreported or failed to report tens of thousands of dollars of spending during the campaign, and took in donations in excess of Alaska’s legal limits from several people. APOC fined Bronson’s campaign $38,500, adding to the $33,500 it fined him in August for failing to report contributions in a timely manner.
For most of us, $72,000 is no small sum — a debt that size would significantly hamper the average Alaska family. But when it comes to politics, pockets are often deep enough that such a fine, though undesirable, might well be seen as the cost of doing business. After all, Bronson won his race, so any fines incurred by the campaign are water under the bridge when it comes to achieving its end goal. And surely a sitting mayor — even if his campaign doesn’t have enough cash on hand to dispense with the fine immediately — will be able to raise money to retire the debt with little difficulty.
This isn’t to say Bronson wouldn’t have won the race regardless, or that campaign staff intentionally misreported finances. As the adage known as Hanlon’s Razor goes, “never attribute to malice that which may be adequately explained by incompetence.” Campaigns are hectic, and if campaigns don’t keep good track of their income and outflows, it’s easy to make errors — even major ones — in reporting. And if the end result is just a fine payable after the dust from the race has settled, campaign managers may well ask themselves: Why bother being scrupulous with their reporting while there are a hundred other ways to spend time and money that would be more effecting in getting more votes?
The problem, of course, is that these finance disclosures, overseen by APOC, are the only window the public has into who’s paying for campaigns — and who’s being paid by them. Without that oversight, we can have no confidence that candidates aren’t taking illegal contributions, running dirty, unattributed hit-piece ads, and all the other skulduggery that exists on the fringes of our political system.
And right now, APOC doesn’t have the authority or the resources to punish violations — and stop them — when they occur. Imagine if there were instant replay in pro sports, but instead of pausing the game to make sure the right call was made, league officials looked at game tape a week later and handed out thousand-dollar fines to offending teams but left all the results, from touchdowns to completed passes to the final game score, intact? That’s the system we have now for campaign finance regulation in Alaska, and it’s no wonder campaigns often don’t pay more attention to their accounting. All reactive punishment does is teach campaigns they need to build a sufficient war chest of donations that fines don’t matter.
In APOC’s defense, it has been hamstrung, either by accident or design, by state lawmakers. Ten years ago, the agency’s budget allocation was just shy of $1.5 million, funding 14 staff members. That sum might seem sufficient to manage campaign finance laws in Alaska, but the group trains candidates, state and municipal officials and their staff on reporting, handles and error-checks thousands of reports per year, maintains a state database online where Alaskans can reference them, and fields, investigates and adjudicates dozens of election-related complaints. Even in 2011, near the height of Alaska’s oil-fueled budget largesse, APOC’s budget was a relative pittance.
So what’s APOC’s budget now? Far less than it was a decade ago, a total of $920,000. Seven employees. And, crucially, the allocation for the APOC board allows for just 10 meetings per year. In the meantime, the proliferation of SuperPACs and independent expenditure groups has made the task of keeping tabs on campaign finance vastly more complex, as has a court decision lifting Alaska’s lower-than-the-U.S. donation limits. And those independent groups, by design, obfuscate the picture of where a candidate’s support is coming from. It all adds up to a system where APOC has to delay action until long after it would matter.
Is there a solution? Sure. For starters, APOC is underfunded if we want it to be able to act quickly, while campaigns are underway and fines or other sanctions might make a difference. More money is needed if we want finance laws enforced proactively and not reactively.
But simply throwing more money at the agency isn’t sufficient. APOC also needs authority to act swiftly and put a halt to violations while campaigns are ongoing. Picture a version of the commission that has the authority and means to summon representatives from campaigns on both sides of a complaint and act on it within 48 hours of its filing during the final 30 days of a campaign — levying fines, pulling illegal ads, requiring better disclosure. Having an agency that could suss out whether bad behavior is occurring, effectively in real time, would have tremendous value in building and sustaining Alaskans’ trust in our elections. The commission would also be better able to shut down frivolous complaints meant to game the court of public opinion, which now often go unaddressed until after Election Day just the same as those that have merit.
Both pieces of this solution for a better-equipped APOC require impetus in the Legislature to make it happen, which has been a sticking point so far — legislators who benefit from lax oversight can be disinclined to give themselves stricter rules to follow. But pressure from the public to do the right thing — coupled with the threat of an initiative if they don’t follow through — can work wonders. Regardless of our political stripes, we should all be able to get behind a more functional system of keeping races honest and elections fair.
People travel on a four wheeler towards the village of St. Michael on the gravel road that connects Stebbins and St. Michael on the Norton Sound coast in Western Alaska on Thursday, June 27, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)
Beginning in 2022, Alaskans can drive four-wheelers and other “all-purpose vehicles” on public roads that have speed limits of 45 mph or less.
Snowmachines and hovercraft remain prohibited on state roads, but on Thursday, Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer signed regulations that remove restrictions on many other vehicles starting Jan. 1.
Local governments’ bans are not affected. In the Municipality of Anchorage, for example, those vehicles will still be banned. Many other cities and boroughs lack similar rules, and places like the Fairbanks North Star Borough and Matanuska-Susitna Borough lack policing and road authority, which may make it impossible to create local bans.
Vehicles eligible under the new rules must follow certain guidelines:
• All-purpose vehicles must have a headlight, a rear-facing red light, a rear-facing red reflector and a rear-facing red brake light. The vehicle must have brakes, a muffler, carburetor and throttle.
• Drivers must have a valid driver’s license and insurance but don’t have to wear a helmet. Passengers need to wear helmets.
• If the vehicle has seatbelts, they must be used, and any vehicle with seatbelts must use a child seat when carrying a child young enough.
• The vehicle must be registered and have license plates.
Alaska’s rule change began with a push this spring by the administration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy. The Department of Administration — which operates the state’s DMVs — and the state Department of Public Safety proposed it together.
Soon after the rule change was proposed, former Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price said on social media that within her department, it was assumed that the idea came from a close friend of the governor or a donor to his campaign. She said officials within the department cautioned the governor’s office against moving forward, saying it could result in additional road deaths.
She reconfirmed those comments Saturday morning but said she doesn’t know what the agency discussed later. Price resigned in February, before the proposal was launched.
The Department of Public Safety and Department of Administration told the Alaska Legislature in April that the goal was “to provide Alaskans the greatest opportunity to safely and affordably travel throughout the state.”
Snowmachines and four-wheelers are already used in rural Alaska as regular forms of transportation, and numerous small towns and villages permit them on locally owned roads.
The spring proposal would have allowed snowmachines and hovercraft, as well as wheeled vehicles, on state-owned roads.
That garnered a mixed reaction, as Alaskans submitted dozens of comments for and against the proposal. Opponents generally criticized the idea on safety grounds.
Alaska House Transportation Committee chairman Grier Hopkins, D-Fairbanks, was particularly skeptical. In an April hearing he hosted, University of Alaska Fairbanks civil engineering professor Nathan Belz, assistant director of the Center for Safety Equity in Transportation, called the original proposal “potentially dangerous and ill-advised.”
Hopkins said Friday that his views haven’t changed. He believes municipalities should be able to opt into the changes, not be forced to opt out by enacting rules.
“This is so dangerous,” he said.
Proponents have said other states — including Arizona, Utah, Montana and Wyoming — already allow off-road vehicles under certain circumstances, and Alaska should do the same.
“The vast majority will use this to enjoy Alaska in the respectful spirit of our culture,” said Charles Preston of Chugiak.
A magnitude 4.6 earthquake near Ninilchik occurred at 9:47 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. Shaking was felt throughout the Kenai Peninsula and as far away as Anchorage. (Screengrab from Alaska Earthquake Center website)
An earthquake with a magnitude of 4.6 on the Kenai Peninsula shook Southcentral Alaska on Saturday morning.
The earthquake, which occurred at 9:47 a.m., was centered about 9 miles northeast of Ninilchik and occurred at a depth of 28.1 miles, according to the Alaska Earthquake Center.
We have reviewed a magnitude 4.6 event at 09:47 AM on 10/16, located 28 miles deep and 7 miles SSW of Clam Gulch.
This earthquake was felt in many Kenai Peninsula communities and as far as Anchorage.
The event page is available at https://t.co/MSPWRcukjl pic.twitter.com/sWkrh6XVGl
Shaking was felt throughout the Kenai Peninsula and as far away as Anchorage.
No tsunami was expected, the National Tsunami Warning Center said.
Tsunami Info Stmt: M4.8 035mi N Homer, Alaska 0947AKDT Oct 16: Tsunami NOT expected
Flowers are laid near the Belfairs Methodist Church in Eastwood Road North, in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, England, Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021 where British Conservative lawmaker David Amess died after being stabbed at a constituency surgery on Friday. Leaders from across the political spectrum came together Saturday to pay their respects to Amess who was stabbed to death in what police say was a terrorist-related attack. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali) (Alberto Pezzali/)
The name alone — “the surgery” — evokes a place where help is sought and given. British lawmaker David Amess, like others, hosted his all-are-welcome surgeries regularly, meeting the voters he represented with a smile and a ready ear for whatever concerns, problems, gripes and hopes they might have.
Shockingly for a country proud of its parliamentary democracy that has served as a model for systems of government elsewhere, Amess’ availability ultimately also cost him his life.
The fatal stabbing of the long-serving Member of Parliament in an attack Friday that police were investigating as a terrorist incident immediately cast fresh doubt on whether it remains safe and reasonable for British parliamentarians to continue meeting so readily and openly with voters.
Their so-called “surgeries” set British MPs apart from lawmakers in other countries where the governed rarely — if ever — get to meet those who govern them. Being able to drop by, even without an appointment, to chat with and perhaps to chide those in power helps keep British politicians engaged with their communities and allows voters to raise and vent about problems that otherwise could fester if ignored.
Or so the thinking went.
In an era of polarized politics, terrorism threats, social media awash with fury and — not limited to Britain — eroded respect for figures of authority, public accessibility has become increasingly fraught with risk. The stabbing of Amess came five years after another MP, Jo Cox, was slain by a far-right extremist in her small-town constituency. In 2000, a man wielding a sword also attacked lawmaker Nigel Jones and his aide Andrew Pennington, killing him and wounding the MP.
Those assaults did force MPs to be more careful. But they remain remarkably accessible — and potentially vulnerable.
Don Foster, who served for 23 years as MP for Bath until 2015 and now serves in the upper chamber, the House of Lords, says he was often unaccompanied at his surgeries, listening to constituent concerns about housing, schools, money, utilities, hot-button topics like immigration and where the MP stood on this or that issue. Others sent emails or letters and telephoned, generating hundreds of cases each week for Foster and his staff to handle.
At surgeries, “people would turn up, sit in an outer room and be called in by me every 10 minutes or so until I had seen everyone. I would make notes of the issue and suggest what action my staff should take,” Foster told The Associated Press.
Constituents also came to him during off-hours, collaring him when he was shopping. Following police advice, he beefed up his office security after the attack on Jones. Foster also he kept a private list of people whom he would not meet alone. He says they included a stalker “who had a fixation about me” and a man who had lost his job and felt the MP should find him a new one.
“By the time I retired, there were over 20 people on that list,” Foster told the AP. “There were several people who came to see me on a very regular basis – often people I judged to have mental health issues.”
Police arrested a 25-year-old British man for the attack on Amess. A lawmaker since 1983, Amess would put up a placard outside — “Meet Your Local MP” — to let constituents know when his door was open. He tweeted about his final surgery three days in advance, with an email address and a phone number for people to book appointments and the full address and even a photo of the meeting point, the Belfairs Methodist Church in Leigh-on-Sea, to make him easy to find.
Even compared to some other European democracies, British MPs stand out with their regular and roving surgeries. Lawmakers are available via appointment in Germany. In France, lawmakers do regularly roam from town to town to make themselves available to voters, and not all require appointments. A Normandy lawmaker has been criss-crossing his constituency in a van with a mobile phone number on the side door and a folding table inside. And in Greece, voters can drop by MPs’ offices. But regular open-house meetings aren’t a thing in Italy or Spain.
In the United States, Congress members’ town meetings with constituents also are less frequent and easy-going than their British counterparts’ surgeries. Security precautions have ramped up since 2011, when a gunman killed six people and injured 13, including then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, during the Arizona congresswoman’s “Congress on your corner” event.
While aware of the risks, Amess didn’t want to become inaccessible.
“We are advised to never see people alone, we must be extra careful when opening post and we must ensure that our offices are properly safe and secure,” he wrote in “A Survivor’s Guide to Westminster,” published last year.
“In short,” he added, “these increasing attacks have rather spoilt the great British tradition of the people openly meeting their elected politicians.”
FILE - In this Sept. 14, 2021, file photo, demonstrators attend a press conference that turned into a rally against vaccine mandates outside the Statehouse in Concord, N.H. Republicans in New Hampshire are struggling to contain a wing of their party that is promoting conspiracy views around the Covid-19 vaccine and pushing back, sometimes aggressively, regarding federal mandates to get the shot. (Geoff Forester /The Concord Monitor via AP) (Geoff Forester/)
BOSTON — Republican Rep. Ken Weyler was known around the New Hampshire Statehouse for dismissing the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines and opposing tens of millions of dollars in federal funds to promote vaccinations.
But when the 79-year-old Weyler, a retired commercial pilot and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who chaired the legislature’s powerful fiscal committee, sent a 52-page report likening vaccines to “organized mass murder,” Republican leaders were compelled to act.
“I don’t know of anyone who agrees with it. It’s absolute craziness,” said Republican House Speaker Sherman Packard, who quickly accepted Weyler’s resignation from his committee post.
The episode was especially piercing in New Hampshire, where the previous House speaker died of COVID-19 last year. It has also exposed Republicans’ persistent struggle to root out the misinformation that has taken hold in its ranks across the country.
A year and a half into the pandemic, surveys show Republicans are less worried about the threat from COVID-19 or its variants, less confident in science, less likely to be vaccinated than Democrats and independents and more opposed to vaccine mandates.
It’s a combination of views that comes with clear health risks — and potential political consequences. In a place like New Hampshire, where Republicans are hoping to win back congressional seats next year, politicians with fringe views stand to distract voters from the party’s agenda, driving away independents and moderates.
The risk is particularly clear in “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire, where the fight over vaccines has activated the libertarian wing of the GOP. The divisions have the potential to dominate Republican primaries next year.
“What I wonder over the next year is whether all of this is the tip of the iceberg or the whole iceberg,” Dante Scala, political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said.
Republicans in New Hampshire have struggled to unify around a common position since the pandemic first emerged.
In this Thursday, Oct. 13, 2021 file photo, New Hampshire State Police remove an audience member, who interrupted proceedings, during a meeting of New Hampshire's Executive Council in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Holly Ramer, File) (Holly Ramer/)
In this Wednesday. Oct. 13, 2021, file photo, audience members gather during a meeting of New Hampshire's Executive Council in Concord, N.H. . (AP Photo/Holly Ramer, File) (Holly Ramer/)
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has been widely praised for his handling of the pandemic, but has also come under fire from conservative critics. They have pushed back on his state of emergency, which put limits on business operations and public gatherings, often holding rowdy protests, including some at his house.
Sununu, who is eyeing a run for Senate next year against Democratic U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, joined other Republican leaders in opposing a federal vaccine mandate. But that did little to placate his critics, who repeatedly shouted down fellow Republicans during a press conference last month to protest the federal mandate.
Holding signs saying “I will die before I comply” and including one protester with an automatic weapon strapped to his back, the crowd took over the podium and put up their own speakers who predicted, without evidence, that the mandate would force the state’s hospitals to close.
The opposition from Republican leaders to federal vaccine mandates prompted one Republican lawmaker, Rep. William Marsh, to switch parties.
“The belief that is being put forward is that their individual rights trump everything, that no one has the right to impose, in this particular case, a vaccine mandate on a person ever,” said Marsh, a retired ophthalmologist, who was the vice chair on the House Health and Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee. “I am of the belief that, for people in a civilized society, individual rights are limited once they start to impinge on the rights of others.”
The Weyler controversy started last month when he first questioned Health and Human Services data about hospitalizations in the state. He suggested most of those hospitalized had been vaccinated, which prompted the state’s health commissioner to accuse him of spreading misinformation. In fact, 90% of those hospitalized had not been vaccinated, she said.
Gallup polling from September found 57% of Democrats are very or somewhat worried about getting the coronavirus compared with 18% of Republicans. The Democrats are also more confident that vaccines will protect against new variants and more confidence in science — 79% compared to 45% of Republicans..
Weyler was among a group of Republican lawmakers who are so opposed to the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates that they pushed to reject millions in federal funding meant to assist with vaccination efforts. This week, $27 million was rejected by a Republican-controlled Executive Council, a five-member panel that approves state contracts, despite calls from Sununu to accept the funding.
The money would have allowed the state to hire a public health manager and a dozen workers to address public vaccine concerns. But opponents feared it would have required the state to comply with any “future directives” issued by the Biden administration regarding COVID-19, such as vaccine mandates.
After the vote, Sununu was forced to push back against a suggestion that this is the new Republican Party stance.
“I don’t believe most of the people protesting were part of the Republican Party. These are anti-government, shut-it-down, no-government-at-all-costs type individuals,” he told reporters.
One of the groups opposing the mandates, Rebuild NH, responded Friday to arrests of protesters at the Executive Council meeting by calling Sununu a despot and demanding he be censured for his role in “this crime against the people of New Hampshire.”
Democrats have seized on the GOP divisions, saying Republicans were too slow to seek Weyler’s resignation and accusing Weyler and his colleagues of hurting the state’s reputation, slowing vaccination efforts and enabling anti-vaccine extremists.
The report Weyler sent alleged that the shots were perpetuating the “greatest organized mass murder in the history of our world.” It included claims about vaccines containing living organisms with tentacles and unsubstantiated reports about babies from vaccinated parents in South America born with signs of premature aging.
“I was pretty much astonished that someone would be sending this to us,” said Democratic Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, who received the report by email.
In his resignation letter, Weyler said he was stepping down so he wouldn’t be a distraction and apologized for not vetting the material that contained “conspiracy theories and sections that are offensive to groups of people.” He remains in the 400-member House.
Asked for further comment, Weyler said he had nothing to say to The Associated Press.
Several experts who reviewed the report said it was filled with misinformation and unverifiable claims pulled from social media.
“There is no way for you, me, or anyone on the receiving end to fact-check the content or evaluate the accuracy of the statements therein,” Al Ozonoff, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and associate director of the Precision Vaccines Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, said in an email.
The report’s authors, which include a doctor who has falsely promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, told the AP they stood by their findings.
“Sticking your head in the dirt, doesn’t change reality. It just makes you blind and ignorant,” one of the authors, David Sorensen, said in an email interview.
In this Oct. 5, 2021, file photo, a healthcare worker receives a Pfizer COVID-19 booster shot at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File) (Lynne Sladky/)
At Houston Methodist - one of the first American health-care institutions to require workers to get vaccinated against the coronavirus - the backlash was short-lived.
More than 150 employees were fired. There were legal battles and protests. But President and CEO Marc Boom has no regrets: 98% of staff have been vaccinated, and they and patients are safer as a result, he said.
“I can unequivocally say [it was] the best decision we ever made,” Boom said in an interview.
Houston Methodist is not alone in requiring its employees to be vaccinated. About 41% of hospitals nationwide - roughly 2,570 facilities - have some sort of vaccine mandate, according to data collected by the American Hospital Association, a trade group. Others are expected to follow after President Biden announced last month that he would require most health-care facilities that accept Medicaid or Medicare funding - many of which also treat immunocompromised people who are at high risk of getting severely ill from covid - to vaccinate their employees.
Most health-care systems that require vaccination have touted widespread compliance. In interviews, administrators at some of the nation’s largest hospital systems said the mandates worked: Officials said that they have very high vaccination rates they attributed to the requirement and that they have seen coronavirus infections - and sick leaves - noticeably drop.
At Novant Health, a 35,000-employee health-care system in four Southeast states, more than 99% of workers have complied with a vaccine mandate, spokeswoman Caryn Klebba wrote in an email.
“Without a vaccine mandate for team members, we faced the strong possibility of having a third of our staff unable to work due to contracting, or exposure to, COVID-19,” she said. “This possibility only increases heading into a fall season with the more contagious and deadly Delta variant.”
California-based Kaiser Permanente, with 216,000 employees and 23,000 physicians, reported that more than 92% have been vaccinated as of Sept. 30, when staff members were required to get the shot, spokesman Marc Brown wrote in an email. About 6% of the workers were unvaccinated but sought exemptions, leaving 2% who did not comply and were placed on unpaid administrative leave, Brown said. He said since then, “many” of those workers have agreed to get vaccinated or applied for an exemption, but he did not specify a number.
In New York, a statewide vaccine mandate for health-care workers, which went into effect on Sept. 27, increased the number of people getting immunized. Ninety percent of the state’s health-care workforce is now vaccinated, according to state data. Northwell Health, the state’s largest provider, said it fired 1,400 employees - less than 2% of its 76,000-member workforce - for refusing to get vaccinated. Northwell said it expects no interruptions to its service as a result of the terminations.
A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the state must continue to allow health-care workers to request religious exemptions as a lawsuit over the state’s vaccine requirement proceeds.
But many hospitals still lack mandates, and efforts to vaccinate every eligible staff member have lagged. Some officials fear that staff members, overwhelmed from the summer delta variant surge, could remain exposed amid a potential “twindemic” of covid and flu spikes this winter.
The federal government does not require health-care facilities to share their vaccination data. But at more than 2,000 facilities nationwide that voluntarily reported numbers to the Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 1 in 4 hospital workers are unvaccinated, according to data provided last month.
CommonSpirit Health, with 137 hospitals in 21 states, said “most” employees are vaccinated ahead of a Nov. 1 deadline to respond to the system’s mandate. At CommonSpirit’s California facilities, where a statewide mandate went into effect Sept. 30, more than 90% of the system’s employees are vaccinated or have received an approved exemption, according to a company statement.
Even at hospitals that have not yet mandated shots, administrators have touted their vaccination rates. A spokesman for HCA Healthcare, which has 185 hospitals in 20 states and the United Kingdom, said the “majority” of its employees are vaccinated, but did not give a specific figure.
Yet the unvaccinated minority of hospital workers have drawn the public’s attention with their vocal opposition in the form of protests and lawsuits. Hospital workers have filed or joined lawsuits in at least eight states - including Oregon, Minnesota and New York - against their employers or public agencies over vaccine mandates.
Houston Methodist, too, made headlines over the summer for suspending 178 employees who did not get vaccinated - after a judge dismissed a lawsuit from 117 employees who challenged the mandate, alleging it was reminiscent of Nazi-era “nonconsensual human experimentation.”
But Boom says the headlines belie the fact that very few - less than 0.6 - of Houston Methodist’s 26,578 employees quit or were fired because they refused the vaccine. Ninety-eight percent are now vaccinated and 2 were exempt or allowed to defer, most for medical reasons, Boom said.
On Monday, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning any entity in Texas, including private businesses, from requiring vaccinations for employees or customers. Boom said he was “grateful” the hospital had mandated vaccinations “early so the order will not have an immediate impact.”
Jared R. Woodfill, a lawyer representing workers who were terminated, said in an interview and a letter sent to the hospital that Abbott’s order applies to his clients and they should be reinstated - an argument he said he plans to make in his ongoing lawsuits against the hospital in state and federal court. Stefanie Asin, a hospital spokeswoman, said, “There is no merit to what he is saying.” The hospital will not rehire the unvaccinated former employees, Asin said.
Boom credited the widespread vaccinations with keeping 300 workers from getting sick over the summer, according to an analysis the hospital conducted of short-term disability leaves. Staff members who did get sick with covid-19 reported less severe cases, Boom said, and no employees died over the summer. Houston Methodist lost two workers to covid-19 in summer 2020.
Despite the clinical and real-world evidence that vaccination not only protect the person who gets their shots but those around them, some hospital workers have still declined to get vaccinated, leaving hospitals in some parts of the country struggling to convince them.
Arnhild Espino, a registered nurse at Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center in Gresham, Ore., was put on administrative unpaid leave on Sept. 30 for refusing to get vaccinated. She was among 794 workers - approximately 5 of Legacy’s 14,000 employees - who were not yet vaccinated. Espino is searching for employment elsewhere and is considering seeking a license in Florida, where vaccination requirements are lax. After Abbott’s order, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged in a news conference to explore options to prevent employers from firing workers over not getting vaccinated.
“Oregon state is stripping away my livelihood and everything I hold true,” Espino said.
Since Espino and others were put on administrative leave, 114 employees have come into compliance and 97 are on their way to becoming fully vaccinated, Legacy spokeswoman Kristin Whitney said. Still, the system of six hospitals and about 70 clinics has temporarily consolidated or closed services, including CT, mammography and ultrasound, at about 10 facilities to lessen the burden on staff from employees on leave. There were 986 exemption requests, of which at least 897 were denied, according to an internal presentation shared with The Washington Post.
One nurse in Washington state, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because her employer does not allow employees to speak to the media, had initially sought an exception and was denied and suspended.
The nurse said she considered going into child care. Her family sold one of their cars and she weighed applying for food stamps. Unemployment was not available to those who lost their jobs because they declined to get vaccinated, she said.
But after taking a break from social media, praying and talking to her husband about the financial risks of losing her well-paid job, she said she changed her mind. Now, she plans to get vaccinated and return to work.
Workers leaving their jobs are also reckoning with stepping away from hospitals at a time when staffing is most needed.
When asked what a loss of 1 of health-care workers could look like in New Mexico - which has mandated vaccination for those employees - David Scrase, the acting head of the state’s Health Department, said the impact on an already strained system is considerable. But he added that even if unvaccinated workers kept their jobs, they could be out for long periods if they became infected and got seriously ill.
“A 1% impact on health-care workers in our state would mean that all the other health-care workers would have to work 1 harder,” he told reporters on a call last month. “They’re already working as hard as they can, so I think it’s a big deal.”
The high compliance numbers that many hospitals cite do not always tell the full story. Some hospitals are more lenient than others in granting exemptions, which may lead to a larger share of unvaccinated staff choosing to skip vaccination without losing their job.
About 10% of the 20,000 employees of MUSC Health, the clinical network of the Medical University of South Carolina, received permission to skip vaccination for religious or medical reasons, according to Patrick Cawley, its CEO. In a typical flu season, less than 1% of MUSC Health employees are exempt from the influenza vaccine, Cawley said.
Unlike some other hospitals that set up committees to examine exemption requests for merit and decide whether to grant them, MUSC Health “did not do that,” Cawley said. “I have everybody’s explanation . . . and at the moment we haven’t done anything with that other than accept it.”
“I do think some people probably used those exemptions more than they should have,” Cawley said.
Other hospital networks have reported small fractions of workers receiving exemptions. Less than 4 of UNC Health’s 30,800-person workforce were granted religious or medical exemptions, according to Matthew Ewend, the chief clinical officer of the state-owned network of 14 hospitals, 18 hospital campuses and more than 500 clinics in North Carolina.
Ninety-nine percent of the workforce is vaccinated or exempt, Ewend said, but the system could lose nearly 300 staff members if they don’t get vaccinated by Nov. 2, the end of a probationary period.
“We’re talking a lot about the 2 who aren’t in compliance, but a huge swath of our workforce came into compliance, and not only did that, but did it willingly,” Ewend said. “And I think their voice sometimes is lost because we are thinking about the folks who have struggled with this.”