- The isolated, rural town of Aniak, Alaska, relies on the post office for vital deliveries of food and medicine.
- But since the pandemic broke out, shipments to Aniak have slowed down, leaving the town of 549 people vulnerable.
- As the US Postal Service grapples with a soaring debt problem and ballot-related uncertainty, the pandemic is still affecting mail delivery in small towns across the country.
- View more episodes of Business Insider Weekly on Facebook.
A post office in the rural town of Aniak, Alaska, is a lifeline to an area completely surrounded by water.
Most residents in the western Alaska town have lived there for their entire lives and depend on the US Postal Service for basic necessities, from food to life-saving medicine.
But the pandemic has taken a toll on Aniak's post office, leaving the town's population of 549 vulnerable.
Eleanor Sanbei has been the town's postmaster for nearly two decades and knows almost every resident.
"There are so many people that have medicines coming in. Every village needs their meds," Sanbei told Business Insider Weekly. "If I close my office, they will not get their meds."
Sanbei and her clerk run the office, which is a central hub for the community, by themselves. The only way to get to Aniak is by boat or plane, and on an almost daily basis, the mail is delivered to Aniak and then dispersed to 12 surrounding villages.
"If you were in a big city like Anchorage, you go to a Walmart or Sam's or Costco, or you get your groceries with your vehicle," resident Darlene Holmberg said. "Here, we're getting our groceries, hopefully, from Amazon for some other reasonably priced store. We really rely on the postal service for basic necessities."
But when the coronavirus pandemic finally reached Aniak in August, when it recorded its first case, it had already affected the local airline industry. Ravn, the region's largest airline, filed for bankruptcy in April. The airline reduced its fleet from 30 planes to three, which meant Eleanor's office received less mail.
"We get mail four times a week now, which has slowed down the mail considerably," she said. "So I have to tell customers, 'No, it's not going to come in tomorrow.'"
The slowdown has had dire effects for local business owners, like Esther Donhauser Deihl, who owns a restaurant called the Hound House.
"It's been kind of up and down, especially with the planes not coming up. And a lot of times, if it sits in Anchorage for quite a while, tomatoes will come up just liquid."
The mail slowdown also prevented the local school system from receiving essential supplies before it opened for the year.
"I can't think of very many schools in the country that would start school and say, "I don't have lined paper," but I mean, that's happened," said Gretchen Kelly, principal of Aniak Junior-Senior High School.
To help prevent the delays in mail, Sanbei connects with local airline handlers to try to make sure packages are delivered on time.
"There are customers that call me and ask me, they have boxes coming in for their groceries. I keep an eye out for them," she said.
The future of the Postal Service continues to worry Aniak as it's been wrought with a multibillion dollar debt problem.
But the town's postmaster promises to get essential items to residents who need them.
"We help each other," she said. "If I were to call someone to ask them to help me, it's not a problem. [We're] all giving people."
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