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Servers, bartenders grapple with uncertainty after dine-in service halted across Alaska

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Former Spenard Roadhouse bartender Shane Russell, photographed with his girlfriend Emma Clyne at their home on Friday, March 20, 2020. Russell was let go from the popular Spenard eatery after Mayor Ethan Berkowitz ordered the closure of all restaurants to anything but take-out service. Clyne also works at the resturant, dealing with to-go orders, but has seen her hours cut. They estimate that as a household, they have lost about 75% of their normal income. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

About 30 minutes before Danielle Bedard, a server at Muse, clocked in March 12, her manager called and told her she wouldn’t be needed. By 6 p.m. the next day, the Anchorage Museum, along with Muse and the Seed Lab, had closed.

“Within 24 hours, we had gotten an email that said, ‘This is how you file for unemployment, let me know if you guys need help with anything and I’ll see you guys in April,’” Bedard said.

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s order prohibiting dine-in service at restaurants, bars and breweries went into effect March 16. That was followed a couple days later by statewide restrictions through April 1. (Take-out and delivery is still allowed.)

Bedard hasn’t made a decision yet on whether or not to file for unemployment. As a military spouse, she says her part-time job Muse was supplemental income.

“It’s hard,” Bedard said. “We work for an independent woman, we’re contracted through the [Anchorage] Museum. This is affecting as high up as her and as far down as part-time servers — everybody in-between.”

Misha Daniels is a bartender at Mad Myrna’s and a “super part-time” fill-in at Darwin’s Theory. She’s also 39 weeks pregnant.

With service industry friends in bigger cities like Seattle, New York and New Orleans, Daniels has been keeping a close eye on closures in the Lower 48.

“I knew it was coming… I’ve already been getting ready for maternity leave, so for me personally, I already had a buffer of ‘I’m planning on taking a couple of months off,’” Daniels said. “I’m really concerned about my friends that are paycheck to paycheck — that are night by night, like, ‘If I don’t make this much money, I can’t make rent tomorrow.’”

Daniels said many of her friends and fellow bartenders were in a tough spot even before the closure — they were uncomfortable going to work and possibly coming into contact with the virus, but couldn’t afford to stay home.

“In the service industry, we’re really prone to illness because you have to get close to people to talk to them,” Daniels said.

“People get drunk and when they are starting to get drunk they’re spitting when they talk, you’re handling their glassware and you’re handling cash. There are so many points of contact for germs… In the service industry, every single one of us has gone to work when we knew we shouldn’t have because we felt like we had to tough it out,” Daniels said.

And, Daniels said, she’s concerned about what she’ll return to.

“I’m worried about when I’m ready to go back to work, will there be a work to go back to? Will there be people sitting at the bar with money to spend?” Daniels said.

With the dining-in restriction has come a wave of layoffs. Shane Russell has been a bartender at Spenard Roadhouse on and off for seven years. He was laid off March 17.

He’d said he’ll probably be filing for unemployment. He’s also out of luck with his other job; he’s a musician, but his band won’t be performing for a crowd anytime soon.

“I’m honestly just laying low and trying to tough it out," Russell said. “Music-wise, I mean even my band is taking a break from practicing and taking some time to rest.... [Spenard Roadhouse is] my second home, a second family… I feel confident that if they are able to open the bar again that I will be highly considered for my job back. It could be a blessing in disguise and maybe it’s time to become an at-home rockstar.”

Drenushe Hukali works at her family’s restaurant, Sami’s City Diner. She, along with her brother and sister, are all full-time servers. The diner is the main source of income for her family.

With 30 employees, Hukali said she received messages from just about every staff member following Berkowitz’s order.

“Most of our staff are full time and only two of them have second jobs,” Hukali said. “Since the announcement, I have gotten texts daily asking for the updates about the diner, but sadly I don't have any good news.”

After comparing gross revenue from March 18, 2019, and March 18, 2020, Hukali said there was a $6,000 difference for the diner.

“March is the month we look forward to because January and February are the slowest months of the year,” Hukali said. “I think the impact wouldn't have been as devastating if we weren't already trying to recover from slow winter months.”

The weekend before the closures, business at the diner dropped by more than 70 percent, Hukali says.

“It was scary but we were hopeful, because there had only been one confirmed case in Anchorage at the time,” Hukali said. “I checked with a few friends who work at other restaurants and they were saying the same thing.”

While restaurants, bars and breweries are slated to open by early April, much is unclear.

“I think I can say that probably every bartender in town is really looking forward to serving those first drinks again and saying hi to everyone,” Daniels said.

“We generally really care about our regulars and that’s part of our family. Normally in crisis, we meet at the bars, and I think that’s what makes this so weird — 9/11 was crazy but we all had each other, and this is crazy and we don’t have each other.”