It’s a little more than a year from Alaska’s next gubernatorial election, and Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy would love to talk about some of the issues he ran on: crime rates (they’re down), jobs, his plans to boost the state’s energy industry.
But for now, the state remains in the grips of an intense, delta-driven surge of the coronavirus that’s stressed its hospitals and fueled a caustic public debate over a mask mandate in the state’s largest city. And a special session the governor called to address the Permanent Fund dividend and Alaska’s budget deficit is languishing.
Dunleavy spoke with Alaska Public Media’s Nat Herz this week about the state of the pandemic, his relationship with lawmakers and the outlook for next year.
Listen to the interview (the voice that breaks in partway through is Jeff Turner, Dunleavy’s deputy communications director):
This transcript was edited for clarity and condensed.
Alaska Public Media: On the pandemic: We’ve got those hundreds of contracted workers who showed up to work at hospitals. Cases seem like they are at least plateauing, if not going down. Hospitals are still in crisis standards of care, and if you look at the numbers, we still have lots of cases compared to most other places in the country. How do you think we’re doing?
Mike Dunleavy: We’d love to see the cases come down, and the cases will come down. Back in early August, the most vaccinated state in the country, Vermont, experienced a 245% increase in cases, because the delta variant’s just much more infectious. So, we’re seeing a surge that other states have seen. We want the cases to come down; we believe the cases will come down here, sooner than later.
APM: Are we doing okay?
MD: We still have the fourth-lowest death rate per capita. We did have the third. Forty-six other states have done worse.
It’s a tough one, to say that when somebody dies, ‘Are we doing good?’ Our hospitals are holding, they have assistance. None of what we’re seeing is unnecessarily unanticipated. And I would say that we’re hanging in there, and we’ll get through this.
APM: You’ve been consistent in saying that mask mandates are a choice for local governments. But what would you say to people who see that their local governments, except for in Anchorage, are not doing that, it’s costing lives, and that a mandate is something the governor has the power to put into place — so why not do it?
MD: Government has a lot of power to do a lot of things in people’s lives, which I don’t necessarily believe is good. There are some people that believe that you need government to do the right thing. I have been in government for several years — government is not perfect. Government makes mistakes, as well. I actually thought we did really well with the pandemic, when it first started, because people did what they needed to do to take care of themselves. I don’t believe in mandates, especially putting something into someone’s arms. I know other people do. I don’t.
APM: On the mask mandate, though: Is it not worth the potential reduction in spread that we would see to violate that principle?
MD: What would that reduction be? How much?
APM: I think the state and the municipality have said it’s significant, right?
MD: If everyone wore an N-95 (mask), and wore it properly in the right settings, I think you would see a significant reduction.
APM: You’re not convinced that a mandate would be very effective?
MD: I don’t think so. And can you describe the mandate that Anchorage just passed? People are exempt? I don’t know — is there going to be enforcement?
APM: But wouldn’t you at least accept that probably it will result in more people wearing masks, even if it’s not a lot or everyone.
MD: Probably, but I don’t know. Probably.
APM: In Anchorage, it’s been a pretty difficult couple of weeks, I think, for the local government. Do you have a sense of what is driving the kind of toxic debate and discourse that’s gone on there?
MD: I think the media is part of it. I think social media is part of it. I think there are a number of things being discussed nationally that are polarizing people. I think there are good people that absolutely believe that their rights are in jeopardy. And I believe that there are good people that believe that certain mitigation efforts such as mask wearing will have some impact
APM: But you don’t really believe that at this point, that mask-wearing will have much of an impact?
MD: It depends on what kind of mask, in what setting, for how long and how well is it fitted. We did a mask 101, many months ago, with mask experts at one of our press conferences. You start with a parent teaching a kid to cover their face when they sneeze, right? That’s a mitigating attempt. Most of us would agree that that probably won’t stop a virus. But it helps deflect, and then you work your way up to a loose fitting cloth mask, all the way up. So, it depends on what you’re wearing.
APM: But generally speaking, the average mask that someone’s going to wear — there’s an idea that either that’s going to help or it’s not going to help. And it seems like you’re kind of backing away from the idea that generally speaking, more people in masks —
MD: Help do what though, is the question? Everyone says help. Help do what? Stop the virus? It won’t stop the virus. It will not stop the virus. Does it help if the guy wearing the mask is a truck driver that goes up and down the North Slope and nobody else is around him? I don’t see how that helps. You’re talking about everyone getting into a crowded room — you’re better off wearing an N-95 if you get into a crowded room. So, it’s a matter of degree.
APM: Okay. To go back to the previous question —
MD: Can I ask you a question? When I answer your question, sometimes you don’t like the answer. I mean, I’m just being polite. But if you have a better answer, you should substitute and say, ‘This was Dunleavy’s answer.’ Or, ‘This is the answer I think he should say.’
APM: I just think that, you know, the public health folks would say —
MD: The public health folks, their job is to look at every mitigating approach you could possibly do. And ideally, you would be wearing an N-95 and be 8 feet away from people. That would be ideal.
APM: But I think that evidence also says that if you wear a cloth mask or a surgical mask, that’s still a lot better than not wearing a mask at all.
MD: It depends on your setting.
APM: If there’s a city requirement to wear a mask in a public space — that will reduce transmission?
MD: It may.
APM: It may?
MD: You’re absolutely right — it will reduce it by 67.5%. I’m sorry, 80%. How much would Dr. Zink tell you it will reduce it by? How much will it reduce it by?
APM: I don’t know.
MD: Right? Okay.
APM: But I think the point is, we don’t know, but presumably it’s a meaningful amount somewhere between zero and not 100, because we know they’re not 100%.
MD: I think whenever you have a barrier on your face when there’s a virus around, it could have an impact on reducing spread.
APM: Going back to the Anchorage discourse question, around what’s fueling the toxic discourse there. Is it all media? Is it specific media? Is it just social media, or is it media like me, or media like The Watchman and Must Read Alaska and The Blue Alaskan?
MD: I think all of it contributes. Prior to the internet and social media, you had printed media that was pretty static. Usually, the news was dated, because you had to deliver it. But now, it’s instant, all across the world. And there are numerous, too many to even name, how many different sites there are and groups and so forth. So, I think you have a plethora of opinions, interspersed with facts. I just think the whole thing has contributed to a huge questioning situation.
APM: Is there anything government can do to fix that situation?
MD: Government can’t fix everything. I don’t believe so.
APM: What kind of consideration are you giving, if any, to any kind executive action or legislative proposals to ban mask or vaccine mandates?
MD: None, at this time.
APM: Last COVID question: What are you hearing about ivermectin right now, and would you say that people should not be using that for COVID?
MD: I’ll never pose as a doctor and tell you what you should use or shouldn’t use. That should be between your doctor and the patient. There’s ivermectin for livestock. There’s ivermectin that is actually for human beings as well. That’s a decision between the doctor and the pharmacist and the patient.
APM: Would you agree that the focus on ivermectin distracts from the usefulness of vaccines?
MD: No, I don’t think it does. All of these discussions, you can have. We’ve been through this before: I was infected. I got the vaccine.That’s one discussion. There’s other potential therapies. There’s monoclonals. So, no, I don’t think it distracts.
APM: If you got COVID, would you want ivermectin?
MD: Would I want it? I’d have to have a discussion with my doctor to see what was best. (You’re suggesting) it’s almost, like, I have this craving for ivermectin or something. I would just like to be able to know that I could get better if I got infected. That’s all.
Dunleavy’s communications aide, Jeff Turner, breaks in: It’s important to remember what the administration’s done on COVID. We now have 250 health care people coming up that were just licensed under the program that we announced a few weeks ago. So there’s that and other measures going on to address COVID. Those might be good things to bring up as well. It’s more than just face masks.
APM: The special session on the Permanent Fund seems to kind of be stalling out. There was an opinion piece the other day that basically said the governor has it backward with his fiscal plan: Locking in the Permanent Fund dividend and the Permanent Fund in the Constitution is the easy part. And the hard part is filling whatever the budget deficit is that we’re left with, if we go with your plan to divide Permanent Fund revenues 50-50 between government services and dividends. So: Where are the proposals that would give legislators confidence that you’re serious about filling that budget hole?
MD: You’re kidding me. You’re kidding me. You really don’t know where the proposals are? You haven’t seen the proposals, since we started introducing proposals in January of last year, and in subsequent special sessions, you’ve haven’t seen those proposals? We can get you — there’s probably a book that thick of proposals.
APM: So, basically, at this point, you feel like the Legislature has the tools in front of them?
MD: Yes, they do. They have the tools in front of them. They know the numbers. They just have to choose, as a Legislature, if they want to solve the issue with the tools that they have.
APM: Do you have the ability to knock heads together and bring everyone into a room and kind of push things forward yourself? Or is that not your job at this point?
MD: They’re having a very difficult time getting into a room with themselves right now. Our job is to lay out a budget and lay out a sustainable fiscal plan. We’ve done that. Our job is to do the research, when they ask for it. We’ve done that. Our job is to come up with as many ideas as possible, to put together a sustainable fiscal plan with all the components. We’ve done that. Our job is to provide them the environment for a special session. We’ve done that.
APM: So if Alaskans are frustrated that they haven’t seen more progress, is it your feeling that there’s really not that much more you could do, and the leadership at this point needs to come and is not coming from the Legislature?
MD: Yes. Yes. And if they don’t come up with a decision, that non-decision is a decision. That they prefer to have the situation that we have now.
APM: Do you see that changing over the next regular legislative session?
MD: I wish it changed in January. I wish it changed this summer. Alaska needs a sustainable fiscal plan. There’s nobody that argues that. What this really comes down to is whether the Permanent Fund and the Permanent Fund dividend are going to be permanent, or whether they’re subject to being spent on government programs. That’s what this comes down to.
APM: What do you feel like the chances are that we do get this resolved before the election this coming year?
MD: I have to remain optimistic. But there’s always the chance that they won’t want to resolve it. And then, the people of Alaska will have to decide if that’s the type of government that they want.
APM: There was that ruling from the federal judge last week, where he said those two psychiatrists had been unconstitutionally asked to resign. And he made a reference that you could be held personally liable. In retrospect, the fact that the request for resignations, at the start of your term, went out to a larger-than-usual group of employees after you were elected — was that a mistake?
MD: I don’t think so. No.
APM: So, you feel like you guys will continue to fight that lawsuit?
MD: We’re having that discussion.
APM: What else do you want people to know?
MD: 500 health care workers are here. Our fiscals are actually looking very good for the state of Alaska. Our crime rates have plummeted over the last three years. I don’t know if I saw anything on that.
APM: Are you frustrated by the fact that people don’t seem to be acknowledging that stuff?
MD: No. I think there’s a lot of good things going on in Alaska. It’s all overshadowed by this virus, nationwide, and the politics nationwide. But there’s plenty of jobs if people want them.
APM: Do you have a sense of when the pandemic will —
MD: (joking) December 1, it will end. No, but you raise a very good question. Let me answer it. This pandemic is not going to ‘end.’ Okay? This pandemic is in many mammal species now. Denmark had to destroy millions of mink because there was a spread going back and forth, transmission. So, people need to realize that we’re going to have to live with this pandemic, this virus. We have the mitigating approaches that I think give us the upper hand. But it’s going to be with us. And, as I mentioned, it’s just a matter of time before everyone has the antibodies, either through infection or vaccination.