News & Opinion | December 1, 2020 7:00 am

How Is the Alaska Town Where Everyone Lives in One Building Handling the Pandemic?

Whittier has had its own unsettling brush with the coronavirus

Begich Towers Whittier Alaska
The Begich Towers in Whittier, Alaska.
Jessica Spengler/Creative Commons

Whittier, Alaska is home to a little over 200 people. That, in and of itself, isn’t all that strange; there are plenty of small towns all over the country, to say nothing of the globe. What makes Whittier relatively unique is the way its population is arranged: nearly everyone in the town lives in the same building.

Actually, that’s an understatement: Begich Towers, which used to be military housing, also houses shops, a medical clinic, a church and even a bed and breakfast — among other things. It’s basically a real-life version of the apartment building in J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise, minus the descent into chaos and absurdist violence.

There’s a pragmatic reason for this living arrangement: high winds make going outside in winter hazardous. But how does a town where everyone lives in close proximity deal with a pandemic where close proximity can be dangerous?

A new blog at Messy Nessy Chic explores how Whittier is addressing the current crisis. Whittier’s unique configuration offers a number of public health challenges, but its small population also makes it easier to get the word out about best practices for staying safe.

“Residents were instructed to refrain from lingering in the hallways, cutting off what’s essentially considered their indoor ‘streets’ and community corridors,” the article notes. “Just as the sight of our own deserted cities felt entirely surreal during lockdowns, the silence of the Begich hallways has been one of the … eeriest results of the coronavirus for Whittier’s residents.”

There was one outbreak in late summer, and residents are concerned that a second wave might be coming to Whittier this winter. As with much of the rest of the country, the town’s small businesses have also taken an economic hit, in part due to Whittier’s position as a stop for cruise ships. While the layout of Whittier may differ from most small towns, the challenges it faces are all too familiar.