Anchorage restaurants and bars limp through this winter’s pandemic restrictions — and some close for good

The industry has endured three shutdowns to slow the spread of COVID-19, and it’s now operating under strict capacity rules.

At Van’s Dive Bar in downtown Anchorage, owners Nicki Hale and her husband, Van, are selling one of their pool tables to create more space.

Hale hopes the fire department might now increase the bar’s fire code capacity without the table, giving them room for more customers under the city’s capacity requirements.

The business is hanging on by a tenuous thread, and its owners are doing everything they can to keep the bar alive during the pandemic, Hale said. It has so far endured three shutdowns — for about 45 days last spring, and during the entire months of August and December, she said.

“We’re only open still because of the CARES Act, the muni grants, the state grants and all the help that we’ve gotten,” Hale said.

After months of tight pandemic restrictions, multiple indoor dining closures and a virus that has scared many customers away from eating and drinking in public, the hospitality industry in Anchorage is fragile. Some businesses have closed permanently.

Some businesses were struggling before the pandemic. For many of those, it led to their end.

“The entire economy, as a whole, is certainly at a precarious place for a whole host of reasons that existed prior to COVID, that have been exacerbated by COVID, but certainly are also a direct result of COVID,” said Chris Schutte, Anchorage’s economic and community development director.

The hospitality industry been impacted the most acutely, he said.

[Anchorage’s mask mandate and summer ‘hunker down’ orders helped reduce spread of COVID-19, state report finds]

Restaurant and bar closures are an ongoing source of political tension in Anchorage, most recently at an Assembly meeting Tuesday when a group of people held up cardboard headstones with business names written on them. Members of the public read from a list of closures that had been widely circulated on social media.

The Daily News confirmed that some of those businesses on the list have closed, including Hard Rock Cafe, Table 6 and Sweet Basil Cafe. But others on the list, such as Birchwood Saloon, are only temporarily closed and some, such as That Wing Place, still have locations that are open.

Julie Brophy, one of the people who read the list aloud at the meeting and spoke out against pandemic-related restrictions, said she did not create the list. She tried to figure out which businesses had actually closed but couldn’t reach every business, so she didn’t distribute any copies of the list, she said.

“I was so worried I was going to say somebody had closed that hadn’t and was still trying to hang on,” Brophy said.

Still, as Brophy gathered information about businesses, she found that more than she previously realized had closed or were on the verge of closing, she said.

“It’s just such a trickle-down effect,” Brophy said. ”Our economy — this is going to go on for years, if it’ll recover. It’s really a shame.”

For most bars, restaurants and breweries, continuing to operate under the current mandates is not sustainable, said Sarah Oates, president and CEO of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association.

“The ones who are still able to operate aren’t going to be able to survive on the current restrictions for very long,” Oates said.

At West Berlin, a restaurant serving German cuisine in the Mountain View neighborhood, the restaurant often does not fill up to 25% capacity during its lunch service.

“It’s a ghost town,” server Hollie Mitchell said. In a typical year, January would already be a slow month following the Christmas holiday.

Her job has changed intrinsically.

“You don’t hear the clanging of the plates and silverware, and laughter, and people talking, and the whole reason you go to have lunch or dinner with people — to enjoy their company,” Mitchell said. “So that’s been really weird.”

The money she used to take home from tips made Mitchell a decent living. Before the pandemic, she’d make, on average, $45 during her lunch shift, sometimes making $75 to $100. But now she mostly relies on the minimum wage paycheck, and it’s not sustaining her family, she said.

Bars and restaurants typically pay lower wages, and workers rely on tips.

The effects of closures, restrictions and lowered economic activity are rippling beyond the doors of hospitality businesses and impacting suppliers and vendors.

“Even the liquor suppliers aren’t making the money that they normally make because no one’s buying, because we’re not open the right hours,” said Hale at Van’s Dive Bar. “It goes on and on.”

Mike Pulcifer manages the building where Hard Rock Cafe, its windows now boarded up, used to be. The chain business had a 10-year lease on the place and negotiations are underway as to what happens next with the property.

For now, it will sit empty, he said. It’s no time to open a business, he said.

Pulcifer also runs the Bear Paw Bar and Grill and said that he doesn’t know whether he can count on a summer tourist season or an increase in business from the Iditarod this year.

“Everything’s in limbo,” he said. “I mean, how do you plan on ‘I don’t know?’”

Business groups predicted that the pandemic would lead to many businesses closing. Many residents are frustrated and sad watching the economic consequences play out.

Schutte, with the city, said people should not solely blame emergency orders for businesses closing.

“The culprit in all of this is a pandemic, a global pandemic,” Schutte said. “And it’s a global pandemic that requires, unfortunately, an extreme hunkering-down of daily life, in some form or fashion, whether that’s masking, keeping bubbles small, keeping kids out of school. It just requires us to be isolated, and (to reduce) our normal activity in all ways, including economic activity.”

Schutte said that the emergency orders are designed to protect the community as it slowly, and carefully, reopens.

“We’re letting our foot off the brake slowly to make sure we have control of the car. And as our public health condition continues to improve, we’ll let off the brakes even more,” he said.

A state report examining Anchorage’s emergency orders found that they were likely responsible for major drops in daily COVID-19 case counts, including a mask mandate in June.

Still, businesses are struggling due to the restrictions. Bars are having a particularly tough time right now, Oates said. Some don’t have full-service restaurants and can’t run to-go operations. Many are traditionally late-night joints, and the 11 p.m. cutoff for serving alcohol means that during the hours they would normally be busy, the bars are empty.

While operating at 25% capacity under the the city’s current pandemic restrictions, Van’s Dive Bar can only have 15 people inside, including employees, at any time, Hale said.

“And tables at 10 feet apart, and no one’s sitting at the bar — that leaves me very few seats,” Hale said. “And no music and no entertainment and no dancing — it’s just difficult to operate with those mandates.”

Adapting to the changing rules can be costly, Oates said. For many places, the costs haven’t outweighed the benefits of reopening at such a low capacity, she said.

“We were really hoping and expecting that these really tight restrictions would be a very temporary solution,” Oates said.

Schutte said that the hospitality industry is held to very high standards for cleanliness and sanitization, and that with the added higher standards from the emergency orders, it makes the businesses safe for employees and customers.

“If we’re at a place in (the) emergency order that restaurants or bars are open, and somebody wants to go out and have a drink, you should feel comfortable doing that,” Schutte said.

Van’s Dive Bar has employed a person to watch the door and make sure too many people aren’t inside, and that everyone is wearing a mask when not sitting and drinking at a table, Hale said. But that means she’s paying an extra person to enforce rules at a time when little to no money is coming in.

“I don’t know that I’ll stay open,” Hale said. At the end of January, she’ll take stock of the month’s profit and losses and decide whether a temporary closure, until more restrictions are lifted, is better.

“I may have to lay my staff off again,” she said. “And that’s the hardest part.”

Correction: A previous version of this article said the incorrect amount in tips that Hollie Mitchell made on average as a server before the pandemic.

Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering local government, education and general assignments for the Daily News. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland and was an intern reporter at the Eugene Register-Guard before joining ADN in 2020. She earned her degree in journalism from the University of Oregon.