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Virus cases tied to Anchorage bars prompt calls for businesses to step up precautions

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After health officials linked over a dozen recent cases of COVID-19 in Anchorage to entertainment and hospitality businesses, the city and a number of trade groups are advising bars to prohibit dancing, lower the volume on background music and require customers to wear masks.

“People are going out dancing, people are going out socializing in large groups, and in indoor locations,” said Anchorage Health Department Director Natasha Pineda. “They are going from location to location. That’s going to cause community spread that’s really hard to manage.”

In an attempt to manage the new surge, Anchorage city officials worked with local trade groups — the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association, the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., Anchorage Downtown Partnership, the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce and Visit Anchorage — to release new suggested guidelines on Wednesday for bars and restaurants. Those suggestions include adopting earlier closing hours and taking steps to limit circumstances where customers might not maintain physical distancing.

The suggested precautions were announced during a Wednesday briefing by Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz; Pineda; Dr. Bruce Chandler, medical officer for municipal disease prevention and control; and CHARR President and CEO Sarah Oates.

From June 20 to 29, several people visited establishments in Anchorage while they were infectious and did not have masks on, and they did not maintain physical distancing, Pineda said.

Fifteen cases are associated with local bars, a strip club and a restaurant. Seven cases are associated with a hotel and five cases with a tourism company.

“In this last week, we’ve had a lot of cases that are associated with locations where there’s well over 100 people that they may have interacted with, and we can’t trace or contact any of them,” Pineda said.

Oates said there have been serious conversations in Anchorage and statewide about closing bars and restaurants down. While she doesn’t know how many establishments will comply with the guidelines, she has gotten word from some that they will.

“The industry, overall, is understanding that a secondary shutdown is a very real possibility, and I already have commitments from many establishments that they will begin self-imposing some of these things, if they aren’t already,” Oates said.

Pineda said the city notified all the establishments associated with cases, and asked them to share the information with their patrons and employees. One of the businesses had a log book, and the city is working to send messages to those customers.

“If it is the case that the organizations are unwilling to share with their patrons, then yes, we will be publishing locations and infectious periods where people might have come in contact with the virus,” Pineda said.

The surge comes as the city has maxed out its contact tracing capacity, meaning its ability to properly trace the movements of virus carriers and call those who came in contact with infectious people is limited.

As a result, the city and business groups are endorsing seven guidelines:

1. Establishments should require customers to wear a mask before admitting them.

2. Bars and restaurants should reduce or no longer allow dancing or live music, since activities that encourage people to get closer to one another may increase the chances of virus transmission.

3. Music should be kept at a lower volume so people don’t have to stand close to talk to one another.

4. Establishments should close early to avoid operating late at night or early in the morning, when customers might be less likely to social distance.

5. Establishments should limit capacity and increase the distance between patrons.

6. The new rules should be posted clearly for customers to see before entering a building.

7. Bars and restaurants should take advantage of a new, streamlined process to add outdoor seating in parking lots and sidewalks as much as possible.

Oates said she began daily communication with Pineda last week to go over the number of cases associated with bars and restaurants. On Monday, she was alerted the city needed action to be taken quickly, and on Tuesday the coalition of business trade groups was formed and began working on the guidelines.

The toughest sell, Oates said, is asking bars to close early. There has been some pushback, she said.

“That’s going to be hard for places who have most of their business late at night,” she said. “We are just asking businesses to evaluate and see if there are times they can reduce their hours.”

Oates said while the new guidelines aren’t ideal for an industry reeling from a six-week shutdown, they are necessary and, in reality, a lifeline for businesses that want to avoid another shutdown.

“I can say that, with complete certainty, the alternative industry-wide shutdown would result in the permanent closure of businesses that you or your loved ones own, work at or love to visit,” Oates said.

Chandler said bars are especially problematic during a pandemic. People don’t wear masks while drinking, and they dance, sing and stand close together, he said.

“I have great concern for the safety of the people who work in the bars,” Chandler said. “They’re really working in a danger zone.”

Oates said bar workers are used to policing people’s alcohol consumption, but staff is now asked to monitor different behaviors, like physical distancing and mask wearing. Patrons, she said, also need to be more cognizant of their actions. If businesses don’t take additional measures, and people don’t change their behavior, another shutdown is “extremely likely,” Oates said.

“Practice physical distancing,” she said. “That’s been an expectation in the mandates all along, to continue to exercise physical distancing. We are seeing less and less of that happening.”

One cluster involved hotel staff who were not wearing their masks in employee areas of the building, Pineda said. Those people spread the virus to one another, and then went home and spread it to others, she said.

Along with urging greater precautions at indoor businesses, Berkowitz called on the public to follow the emergency order on masks that took effect Monday. Everyone except those who cannot wear a mask for medical or safety reasons is required to have a face covering on within indoor public spaces.

Berkowitz said he understands that masks have been politicized. But, he said, Republicans and Democrats support masks.

In an interview Wednesday, President Donald Trump endorsed masks.

Whatever your leanings are, you can find a reason to support masks, Berkowitz said.

“If you want to do it because the governor has suggested it, follow the governor’s suggestion,” Berkowitz said. “If you want to do it because a tall politician has said you should do it, follow that. If you want to do it because a short politician has said you have to do it, follow that. But do it, because the science on this is increasingly clear.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said employees at a bar spread the virus to each other by not wearing masks in employee-only areas of the building. Those workers were at a hotel, not a bar.

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