Starting Monday, Anchorage’s bars and restaurants can reopen for dine-in service, though there will be heavy restrictions in place.
Chief among them will be a 50% indoor capacity restriction, but patrons will also be limited to table service only under new changes to city pandemic restrictions. That means no standing up, sitting at the bar or ordering from the bar.
The changes to how bars and restaurants may operate are part of an updated policy, Emergency Order 14 version 2, that was announced by Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz on Friday. It will replace the expiring Emergency Order 15, described as a “four-week reset,” which closed bars and restaurants to indoor service and drew intense pushback from many in the industry.
The updated restrictions also loosen size limits on gatherings and allow theaters to reopen, while still compelling people within the municipality to keep their circles small.
Indoor gatherings are limited to 30 people under the revised pandemic restrictions. Outdoor gatherings with food and drink will be limited to 50 people, and those without food and drink are limited to 100. (Those limits are double the capacity allowed under the four-week reset.)
Gyms, theaters and other entertainment establishments, such as bingo halls, may operate at 50% capacity.
At bars and restaurants, outdoor seating in tents will still be allowed, but to allow for ventilation, the tents must have at least two walls removed, four walls rolled up at least halfway or windows that allow for an equal amount of ventilation.
Tables at hospitality establishments must be at least 6 feet apart, and only members of the same group can sit at a table.
Indoor tables also need to be 6 feet from each other, or have a partition in between tables.
Music must be kept to a volume low enough to have conversations while physically distanced, where people don’t need to raise their voice, under the revised city policy. No dancing is allowed in bars and restaurants, either indoors or outdoors.
Masks must be worn by all employees, and also by customers when they aren’t eating or drinking.
Hospitality businesses, entertainment venues, gyms and other establishments offering sit-down service or an in-person appointment lasting 15 minutes or longer also need to keep a log of guests for 30 days, including their first and last name, phone number and email address.
City officials detailed the changes in a community briefing at noon Friday.
Emergency Order 14, which imposed capacity restrictions on bars and restaurants in late July, was replaced a week later by the four-week reset closing bars to on-site consumption and prohibiting indoor service at restaurants.
The closure of bars and indoor service at restaurants prompted some intense opposition. A few restaurants refused to halt indoor service, most notably Kriner’s Diner. The city took the diner to court over its defiance, and a judge upheld the city’s order. Some residents also protested Emergency Order 15 outside of Anchorage Assembly meetings.
One of the hospitality industry’s complaints was that EO-14 was never in place long enough to see if it would have successfully slowed the virus.
On Friday, Berkowitz acknowledged he moved quickly from EO-14 to closing indoor service.
“We can always do things retrospectively and say, ‘Maybe we did things too quickly,’” he said.
But he said the move came as cases were surging in Anchorage, and contact tracing was being overwhelmed. The city health department was warning of an exhaustion of the ICU capacity in mid-September. A day after EO-14 went into effect, Anchorage recorded its highest-ever single-day case count at 151.
“The necessity of action was fairly critical back then,” he said. “In hindsight, we have more information now than we did back then. But we had to act with what we knew then.”
Anchorage Economic and Community Development Director Chris Schutte said the city engaged with the hospitality industry before issuing the new order.
Berkowitz said he plans to keep it in place for at least two weeks while continuing to monitor case rates.
Anchorage’s epidemiologist, Dr. Janet Johnston, said the city saw the desired drop in cases during the four-week bar and restaurant closure. But the decline also came during the city’s mask mandate and as testing capacity was boosted. Outside of a clinical trial, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact effectiveness of any one measure.
“Can I say, absolutely, cause and effect?” she said. “You really can’t do that in real-life public health.”
After two days of cases dropping into the yellow or “intermediate” level, Anchorage’s case numbers are back in the red zone, or “high alert” level, for Wednesday and Thursday. But Berkowitz said cases overall are on the decline, and the city’s contact tracing capacity is increased.
“All of this has given us a greater degree of confidence that we can contain the disease,” he said. “We have a better sense of where it is.”
After announcing the relaxing of pandemic measures, Berkowitz reminded the public that the city is still in the middle of a crisis. Kids are not able to learn in a physical classroom under current policies, and daily life is still subject to a range of restrictions.
“We have seen what happens when we relax our vigilance,” he said.
[Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that there is no outdoor capacity restriction. Outdoor gatherings with food or drink are limited to 50 people, and those without are limited to 100.]
[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]