Starting Monday morning, Anchorage businesses can open their doors for the first time in a month as the city starts to lift regulations enacted last month to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Any bit of a financial life raft is seen as a godsend to some businesses, after many were forced to close their doors and lay off employees.
Yet many remain cautious. Confusion regarding the new regulations and hesitation by employees who are worried about the new coronavirus, with dozens of active cases in Anchorage, make reopening complicated.
“The overwhelming feedback I’ve been getting is most businesses don’t want to open up right away,” said Sarah Oates, president and CEO of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association, a service industry trade association.
Oates said one concern is that the public will be reluctant to dine in at a restaurant. And even if they do, limited capacity makes running a restaurant nearly untenable; most restaurants need 50% capacity to break even.
“The numbers don’t work,” she said.
Some, though, are preparing to take the plunge. Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant will open for dine-in service on Monday, meeting the city’s guidelines that include proper sanitation, social distancing and reservations.
“We’re looking forward to bringing people back to work and serving the community,” said Melissa Hutchinson, daytime supervisor.
The restaurant is fortunate because it has two levels of floor space, making it easier to keep the required 10-foot distance between tables.
The general manager is making extra face masks for employees, on top of the ones staff have already been wearing, she said.
Silverware has been deep-cleaned, pre-wrapped and stored beneath plastic.
Employees will be screened daily for fevers or other signs of the virus. Anyone with symptoms will be sent home immediately, she said.
“We’ve been doing nothing but scrubbing and cleaning and making meals for takeout,” she said.
The takeout and curbside service has kept some cash coming in the door since the city mandated the dine-in closure in mid-March.
The opening will allow Gwennie’s to expand to a 12-hour day, starting at 8 a.m., Hutchinson said. They’d been closing in the afternoon.
“It will be a slow reopening, but we want to do what we need to do to keep our community safe,” she said.
Oates, the president of CHARR, said she’s heard from restaurant owners who say their employees are reluctant to return to work since they are getting unemployment and there’s fear of exposure to the virus.
Restaurants already have extensive cleaning protocols, Oates said, and those will be heightened with the new regulations. She called on the public to stay home if they are sick to help prevent restaurants from becoming vectors of COVID-19 transmission.
She also asked the public to understand the virus can still move through a public space, regardless of the precautions taken.
“There are going to be instances when an employee or recent customer of a restaurant tests positive, and I really hope that people are understanding of that," Oates said.
Retail operations in Anchorage are seeing similar restrictions lifted. They, too, will have to operate at 25% capacity, maxing out at 20 customers in a store at a time.
For Mike Brown, owner of Mossy’s Fly Shop, the easing of restrictions comes at the perfect time: Fishing season is upon us.
“I was excited,” he said of learning he could open up. "It’s been a tough month.”
Brown said he should be able to implement the new rules fairly easily. Last week he bought a couple large containers of sanitizer from Alaska Distillery, and has since picked up a few smaller bottles.
On Friday afternoon, Hoarding Marmot owner Dana Drummond had just finished a search for sanitizer. He was considering opening Monday, but had more trepidation than Brown despite the financial incentive to do so. He’s been confused about the different regulations at the city and state level.
If he opens, he can’t exceed 25% of his maximum capacity, but he’s not sure what that actually is. Further, he’s not sure if his employees want to come back to work and interact with the public.
“I’m obviously a little bit concerned about the general public health, and whether this is the right thing to do,” he said.
Erika Klaar, owner of The Nordic Home, said she’s eyeing a Tuesday reopening for her furniture and home goods store, but is still talking with employees to gauge their comfort level.
“Our main concern is just making sure our employees and customers feel safe with it," she said.
Klaar has sanitizer and cleaning products, as well as gloves and masks. She plans to sanitize surfaces every hour. But she still has concerns and says she’ll take it a couple days at a time. For weeks, the public has been told to stay home, she said, and now suddenly people are told it’s all right to be in closer contact.
“We will open and kind of feel it out," Klaar said.
For personal care workers like hair stylists or tattoo artists, back to business means being in close contact with clients.
Longtime Anchorage tattoo artist Brie Sladen works out of the Primal Instinct Tattoo shop in Anchorage, where all the artists are independent contractors. Sladen is concerned about the health risks of reopening for other people in the community, but since she is healthy and has no pre-existing conditions, she views it as a way to test the waters for others who are more at risk.
She doesn’t know when the shop will reopen, but said that the owner and artists are meeting in the coming days to determine how to open — and there’s a lot to figure out, she said.
With a 10-person limit inside the shop, Sladen said the artists will have to sort out who works and when because not all of them can be in the shop together.
“I’m excited to get back to work, but the looming fear of getting sick or getting a loved one sick is a stressor,” Sladen said.
Sladen is confident in her own abilities to keep her tattoo environment safe and clean, but said that any interaction with the public means she must trust that her clients are being smart and safe.
But being safe and clean means that Sladen and other tattoo artists will need a large supply of personal protective equipment.
Many tattoo artists donated their stocks of masks and gloves to health care workers, Sladen said.
“A lot of people did that in good faith and now they are freaking out,” Sladen said. “A lot of us worry that nobody is going to be able to get the aprons, masks and gloves required to do this.”
Sladen said she took a big financial hit during the shutdown, but she thinks the effects will linger. A lot of her clients may not have the money for tattoos anymore.
“Tattoos are a luxury — it’s the first expense that goes for a lot of people,” Sladen said. “No matter what, our career field is going to be affected for a long time. The ripple effect could be years before people get back to normal or to a new norm.”
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