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This Chugiak bartender is turning an empty saloon into a vaccine call center

Jo Rainwater, a furloughed bartender at Birchwood Saloon in Chugiak, photographed at the bar on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. Rainwater has been helping area seniors sign up for COVID-19 vaccine appointments. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Just imagine it: a crowd of people over 65 pouring back into the bar, celebrating like they’ve all just turned 21.

“I love that vision in my head,” said Jo Rainwater, 50, a bartender at the Birchwood Saloon. “I’d love to see it.”

It’s something Rainwater might just help make a reality.

The Birchwood Saloon, off the Glenn Highway in Chugiak, is closed for the moment during the pandemic. She’s had a little more time on her hands.

So Rainwater — who’s worked on and off at the saloon since the ’90s — became a helping hand, getting people signed up for coronavirus vaccine appointments.

It all started this month, when the state’s vaccine signup for seniors was riddled with confusion on a less-than-user-friendly website. Rainwater helped one of the Birchwood Saloon’s owners successfully sign up for a coveted appointment. Then she began offering her services more widely.

“We’ve kind of joked that your bartenders, they’re also your marriage counselors, your real estate agents, your parts locator, your labor finder, medic — so why not be your tech support for getting your vaccines too?” Rainwater said on a recent Saturday afternoon. “Why not? Throw that feather in my hat. I don’t care, I just want to get back to work. I’ve got places to go.”

Jo Rainwater, a furloughed bartender at Birchwood Saloon in Chugiak, photographed at the bar on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. Rainwater has been helping area seniors sign up for COVID-19 vaccine appointments. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

She helped five or six neighbors. She told a few friends. By the end of that first day, she’d already helped 17 people schedule an appointment for a vaccine.

“And I was in tears,” Rainwater said by phone. “I mean, it’s just all these people that have just been stuck in their house and isolated.”

But now, they had hope, she said.

Rainwater took to a neighborhood watch page on Facebook, asking if anyone else needed help. There were still appointments available.

Things snowballed from there.

By last weekend, Rainwater had helped dozens of people sign up for an appointment — older bar patrons, a 91-year-old woman with a rotary phone. And she has put together a group of about six volunteers to work in a makeshift call center when the new vaccine appointments become available on Friday and Sunday.

She even worked with the Chugiak Senior Center to put flyers out with the Birchwood Saloon’s phone number on it.

Because, of course, the call center is being set up at the saloon. That way, they can use its phone and internet, Rainwater said, but they’ll be answering with a simple “hello” so as not to confuse anyone.

The Birchwood Saloon — every wall covered in beer and liquor ads, catchy posters, slogans and stickers — is the type of place people go when there’s a death, an earthquake or a fire in the community. Politicians sit by schoolteachers, who sit by bikers. It’s the rumored home of a ghost named Jack, sitting at the end of the bar — one moment he’s there, the next he’s not. (Rainwater has had doors open for her. She gets goosebumps just telling the story.)

And people miss the Birchwood. When Rainwater was painting the bar’s exterior this summer, folks would stop just to just say hello on their way to the post office, she said from a barstool in the empty saloon last weekend.

“The reason we’re not open is my health, (Rainwater’s) health, our customer’s health,” said Dan Gates, 64, who co-owns the saloon. “This is more than about a dollar. I don’t give a damn what other people think: We go off science and we go off what doctors are saying.”

Birchwood Saloon owner Dan Gates is letting furloughed bartender Jo Rainwater, right, use the bar’s phone and internet to help area seniors sign up for COVID-19 vaccine appointments. Photographed on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

And so for now, the doors of the Birchwood Saloon are temporarily shut. (It was included in a widely circulated list on social media of Anchorage businesses that had closed permanently due to COVID-19. The bar put out a Facebook post saying that is not the case: “It sucks to be us right now, but we’re still here!”)

Mary Pederson, 72, responded to Rainwater’s Facebook post. She was trying to set up a vaccination appointment this month but had no luck.

“I haven’t talked to anyone who wasn’t pulling their hair out trying to navigate that website,” said the Chugiak resident.

Within 20 minutes, Pederson had an appointment, courtesy of Rainwater, whom she’s known for years. She was grateful and relieved.

The irony of a bartender helping people get shots makes Rainwater laugh. But, jokes aside, the vaccine is tangible, with real results and the potential to bring back something resembling a sense of normalcy.

“People might as well step up,” Rainwater said. “If they see something that needs to be done (and say), ‘Somebody should do this,’ well, be that somebody.”

Daily News reporter Emily Goodykoontz contributed.

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