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Mat-Su

3 days ahead of Anchorage, Mat-Su slowly reopens for business

Denis Watters and his Australian shepherd Sasha wait for a takeout order at Big Lake Family Restaurant on Friday. Watters had hoped to go inside to eat, but needed a reservation under new COVID-19 policies. (Zaz Hollander / ADN)

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BIG LAKE — Denis Watters hopped in his truck to celebrate the easing of COVID-19 restrictions by getting a bite to eat at his favorite restaurant.

Friday marked the first day Alaska’s restaurants could offer sit-down service with limited customer seating since almost a month ago, when Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced a health mandate geared at halting the spread of the novel coronavirus in Alaska by closing all “non-critical” businesses. Since then, restaurants have been limited to takeout and delivery.

But Watters got a little ahead of himself: He didn’t make a reservation at Big Lake Family Restaurant, as is required under the new state guidelines.

So he found himself sitting in his truck with his talkative Australian shepherd, Sasha, waiting on a takeout order.

“It’s a little bit silly,” said Watters, an aircraft mechanic who lives near Wasilla. “I mean, they wipe down all the tables. All the dishes are cleaned and sanitized.”

Dunleavy earlier this week also announced he’d allow non-essential retail businesses, nail and hair salons and tattoo parlors to reopen on the condition they used sanitary and distancing measures. Anchorage businesses start reopening Monday.

In the Mat-Su, business owners say they reopened to take advantage of whatever customer traffic they could after weeks with reduced or nonexistent income. Not all stores and salons reopened. Several said it was too soon.

“The safety of our employees and patrons is our number one priority, and at this time we think this is the best decision,” Locals Pub and Pizzeria in Wasilla posted on Facebook. The restaurant is offering carry-out and delivery.

The Noisy Goose Cafe in Palmer is also sticking with pickup orders only, calling the virus-protection measures “just too restrictive to be feasible at this time" in a Facebook post.

For those that chose to open their doors, Friday definitely wasn’t business as usual.

A “gentleman from Seward" found his way into Guys & Gals Hair Designing in Wasilla, salon owner Alice Massie said Friday afternoon.

“He says, ‘Man, I seen that open sign and I need a haircut so bad,'" Massie said, laughing.

The day was going well midafternoon Friday, she said. “We’re controlling our traffic. We have our sanitation and everything set up in accordance to the stipulations.”

Thirteen customers had come in by midafternoon, one at a time.

“Well, they’re desperate,” Massie said.

The Michaels arts and craft store near Target in Wasilla was open and attracting a steady trickle of shoppers. The store limited customers to 20 inside at a time — one person per household — to comply with Dunleavy’s mandate. Everybody had to stay at least 6 feet apart. Nobody could come in without a mask.

Outside, a woman loaded items into a cart to roll into the store. As she approached, an employee shook his head “no” and asked her to put on a mask. She went back to her car to get one.

Backcountry Bike and Ski in Palmer was “super busy” Friday afternoon, saleswoman Leah Werner said.

Employees were limiting the number of people in the shop and offering a check-in stand outside for people dropping off bikes, Werner said. Rental bikes got sprayed down with alcohol and so did bikes getting serviced.

“There’s hand sanitizer everywhere,” she said.

Kayle Whaley, Maria Sandoval and Ruben Sandoval (left to right) stand inside Big Lake Family Restaurant on Friday, April 24, 2020. The family-owned business reopened for sit-down service but still isn't hiring back servers yet. (Zaz Hollander / ADN)

Big Lake Family Restaurant owner Ruben Sandoval was running the place with just a few others, most of them family. Sandoval figured he could get maybe 15 people in the 1950s-themed dining area given restrictions on table spacing and limiting capacity. Everyone is wearing gloves and masks around customers.

He’s not scheduling his regular employees just yet.

“Right now I can’t get my old staff back because there’s no income coming in,” Sandoval said. “We’ve got to get caught up on all the bills from last month."

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