Broken ice and balmy days are signaling the transition to summer in Western Alaska. While residents have traditionally enjoyed driving along Nome’s three open roads this time of year, the threat of COVID-19 has one Bering Strait regional community wary of non-essential travel.
Located approximately 70 miles northwest of Nome, the village of Teller is only accessible by plane, snowmachine, and dogsled during the winter months. After the spring thaw, Teller’s approximately 200 community members are able to travel to and from Nome along a stretch of highway maintained by the state.
By this point in the season, residents need access to supplies from a larger city, says Teller’s Mayor, Blanche Okbaok-Garnie.
“When the road opens, I do need propane. I’ve been using a hot plate to heat water and cook on. A lot of families have been out of propane.”
The Teller highway is open to just beyond mile 45 according to the Department of Transportation’s 511 service, but Okbaok-Garnie says she has already seen local vehicular traffic this season.
Two weeks ago, the City of Teller, Mary’s Igloo, Teller Native Corporation, and Teller Search and Rescue convened for a “leadership forum” to discuss best health practices for the coming weeks and months.
Mayor Okbaok-Garnie isn’t overly concerned with the spread of COVID-19 in her community but she is still wary of opening up Teller to the surrounding area.
“We’re not too worried right now without any active cases in Nome, but with more travel, people might worry a little more.”
The City of Teller expects all its visitors to follow guidelines from the state, which limit highway travel to one family per vehicle as well as Nome’s guidelines requiring face masks in stores. Outside of these basic parameters, Okbaok-Garnie says the community added their own guidelines.
“Teller went a little bit further and asked that anyone going [to Nome] do not enter any buildings. Anyone going to the (Norton Sound Regional) hospital, visiting family overnight, place themselves on self-quarantine when they return.”
Likewise, the City of Nome requires anyone visiting from the outside to quarantine for two weeks.
Mayor Okbaok-Garnie, who has not visited Nome since early March, is planning on taking the drive herself sometime this week. She will reconvene another meeting of agencies to reassess community travel guidelines shortly thereafter.
Photo at top: The end of the 71 mile road from Nome to Teller, Alaska as seen in 2015. Photo: Emily Russell, KNOM file.