Despite many unknowns, Anchorage bars get ready to reopen in ‘a whole new era’

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Update, Friday afternoon: Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz announced that bars, as well as gyms, theaters and other entertainment venues, will be able to open at 25% capacity with social distancing in place starting Monday. Read the latest here.

Original story:

After holding a staff meeting Thursday morning, Crossroads Lounge owner Jennipher Jenner moved tables around, measuring them to make sure they were spaced far enough apart.

After seven weeks of being shut down due to health restrictions to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, Jenner was busy. She wants to be ready to open up Monday.

But like other bar owners eager to reopen, Jenner isn’t completely sure what will be allowed, and when. Jenner awaits direction from Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, who said he will announce Friday afternoon whether bars can open Monday at 25% capacity.

Berkowitz’s statement came after Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Wednesday night that he would lift statewide health restrictions on Friday, moving the state into the second phase of his economic recovery plan. Part of the governor’s second phase allows bars to open, with restrictions, but Dunleavy said municipalities may move more slowly.

The guidelines for Dunleavy’s phase two plan were not posted on the state’s website until late Thursday afternoon. The plan takes effect at 8 a.m. Friday and includes specific regulations like having a written copy of a safety plan on hand, switching out coasters between each drink and moving tables 10 feet apart from one another.

Sarah Oates, president and CEO of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association, said a lot of bar and restaurant owners are confused. Some places that serve drinks and food don’t know if they qualify as a bar or a restaurant. A lot of restaurants hold the same alcohol distribution license that bars do.

“On paper, they look identical to places that the public would consider a bar,” Oates said.

Still, Jenner said she’s talked with about 10 other bar owners lately, and they’re doing the same thing — getting ready.

“Everyone I’ve talked to said they want to get open as soon as possible," she said.

Jenner said for her, the decision to open up is easy, even under restrictions: It’s better to put money in the bank than just take money out.

[As Anchorage slowly reopens, city is warned of two possible paths — a slow recovery, or none at all]

“We are lucky because we are a large bar,” she said. "For us, I think it means 30 customers. Thirty customers is better than no customers.”

Oates said while it varies widely, bars in general will have an easier time operating on 25% capacity than restaurants due to higher profit margins, and some can operate with fewer employees.

“I’ve heard a lot of interest,” she said. "Now that businesses see that the public is getting a little more comfortable with going out again, we will see a decent number of bars opening up.”

Jenner said she’s training staff on what will become the “new normal,” but customers also need to behave differently in this new environment. If they don’t, she said, they will be asked to leave.

Guidance from Johns Hopkins University on how to reopen businesses during the coronavirus pandemic lists bars as having a “high” contact intensity, meaning there will likely be prolonged close contact between patrons, whereas restaurants are rated “medium.”

Tom Hennessy, an infectious disease epidemiologist and affiliate faculty member at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said that’s likely because people’s behavior is different in bars.

“I presume this is because of the added factor of alcohol and the social mixing that most people go to bars for,” he said. “Restaurants can ask that people come in household groups and stay seated. Hard to do that in a bar.”

Dan Fiacco, general manager of Moose’s Tooth Pub & Pizzeria and Bear Tooth Theatrepub & Grill, hopes to open both locations under limited capacity next week.

“It’s going to depend on what the mandate comes out as,” Fiacco said. “We’re still going to put a huge emphasis on our to-go business, as we’ve been doing.”

[For many Anchorage restaurants, the decision to reopen for dine-in service isn’t easy]

But the pubs will not be run the same way they have in the past.

“Usually we have a ton of people waiting in our beer garden and our waiting area for their tables drinking beer,” Fiacco said.

Now, people will be asked to wait for a table in their cars or outside. The beer garden, or fire pit area, at Moose’s Tooth will be limited to 15 people. At 50% capacity, the restaurant can hold about 180 people, including employees — but not necessarily that many with tables distanced 6 feet apart.

“It’s going to basically be running a new operation, retrain the staff and retrain the public. It’s a whole new era that we’re living in,” Fiacco said.

[Small Business Administration slashes disaster-loan limit, shuts out nearly all new applicants]

But due to the uncertain landscape, not everyone is rushing to reopen. Midnight Sun Brewing Co. and 49th State Brewing Co. reported they plan to open later in the month.

"We are waiting for the mayor to release all of their guidelines before we make a decision,” 49th State general manager Chad Kaina said.

He’s concerned about placing a food order with a vendor, only to have the city shut things down again.

“We want to make sure that the city is ready. We want to make sure our vendors are ready,” Kaina said.

Darwin Biwer, owner of Darwin’s Theory in downtown Anchorage and board member for the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association, said he’s eager to open up, but likely won’t until later next week after he’s been able to stock the bar and buy things like gloves and sanitizer.

Biwer said the government didn’t give bars enough time to prepare for the reopening.

He hopes to make some money, but said if not, he’ll close down again.

“It depends on what they drink,” he said. "We can’t have someone coming in and drinking coffee.”

Biwer knows he owns a bar and not a restaurant. But he’s still confused. Guidelines for restaurants opening up said only household members can be seated together, but what about co-workers?

“What about airline crews?" he posed. "Nobody wants to sit and drink alone.”

Prior to Dunleavy’s new regulations being released, Biwer said he also was confused about whether he can only have 25% capacity, or if he just needs to keep people 6 feet apart. The difference is significant, he said. Quarter capacity is about 13 people, he said, but he thinks he could fit 20 patrons in the bar and keep them 6 feet apart. He plans to go with the latter.

“The 25% is arbitrary anyway," he said. "The 6 feet has been proven to be effective.”

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