State health officials attribute that to the nature of the event — a 975-mile race through the Alaskan wilderness during which mushers are mostly on their own.
“They do a very good job of social distancing,” quipped Heidi Hedberg, Alaska’s public health director.
Alaska’s first confirmed case of coronavirus was announced Thursday, and the patient was described as a foreign pilot of a cargo plane who came into contact with few people before visiting an Anchorage hospital.
The Iditarod started five days earlier, before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. And nearly all the race’s mushers had been in Alaska long before that, said Rob Urbach, the Iditarod’s chief executive.
The army of volunteers and spectators who follow the race present more of a risk of spreading the coronavirus, which poses a larger threat in rural Alaska given the lack of advanced health-care infrastructure there. But organizers are taking “every precaution we can think of,” Urbach said.
They’ve flown cases of disinfectants to the remote communities along the trail. Support crews are camping out instead of sleeping in schools or community centers. And organizers are bringing only essential workers to the finish.
While coronavirus precautions have created extra work for organizers, Urbach was also eager to tout the Iditarod as an alternative to sports events that have been canceled.
“We have an extraordinary race. We have the best snow anyone can ever remember,” he said. “If you can’t watch your NCAA conference tournament th is weekend, the Iditarod is a really, really uplifting, aspirational substitute.”
As the coronavirus captured national attention this week, it at first seemed to barely register with mushers, who remained focused on the race and caring for their dogs.
“My biggest concern is whether to put salmon or turkey in their meal,” Aliy Zirkle, one of the Iditarod’s top female mushers, told an Anchorage Daily News reporter at the checkpoint in Cripple, a deserted mining outpost almost halfway through the route.
But over the past few days, the escalating response to the virus had penetrated the race’s bubble, particularly for mushers from foreign countries.
The wife of Norwegian Thomas Waerner decided to fly home early rather than meet her husband at the finish line in Nome, and Waerner said he anticipates problems returning to Europe with his dogs.
An Italian musher, Fabio Berlusconi, has parents who live in the hardest-hit region of that country; he’s received no information about their status. And on Thursday, Alaskan Jeremy Keller simply turned his sled around 250 miles into the race and began mushing his team back to the start line.
“He wants to be home with his friends and family during this stressful time,” race organizers said in a statement.
For the settlements along the Iditarod trail, the race is a cherished institution, bringing visitors and cash to small businesses and a joyous spectacle to children. By the end of the week, though, excitement was yielding to caution.
At least two checkpoints in the second half of the Iditarod have been moved outside the villages where they’re normally located. In Unalakleet, a hub community on the Bering Sea coast, the general public is barred from the checkpoint building, and barricades will separate people from mushers.
In Nome, at a meeting that drew more than 100 people, Mayor Richard Beneville said, the City Council decided Thursday to close a half-dozen public buildings and to discourage all “nonessential travel” to the community. Those were major steps, Beneville said, given that Nome, with a population of 3,800, typically draws another 3,000 visitors over the course of the week.
“This hits a lot of small business, restaurants — for a lot of them, Iditarod gets them through the winter,” he said.
Nonetheless, given the steps that organizers and local governments had taken, Beneville and another elected leader said they were comfortable with the Iditarod continuing to the finish.
“Mushers are already on the trail,” said Kris Busk, a Unalakleet City Council member. “I think we’re a little too late to have them turn back.
Several Alaska public health experts also said they’re not too concerned about mushers pushing to the end of race. Organizers have been collaborating with state officials, and “they came up with good solutions,” said Hedberg, the public health director.
She and others said an important mitigating factor is that the race began before any coronavirus cases were confirmed in Alaska — along with the relatively little contact that mushers have with the general public once they’re out on the trail.
“Of all the sporting events you can think of, this is probably the only one that you could make reasonably safe at least for the next few days,” said Jeff Jessee, the dean of the University of Alaska-Anchorage College of Health. “I think they got it in just under the wire.”