Business/Economy

Businesses cautiously prepare to boost operations as Anchorage lifts most COVID-19 restrictions

Restaurants, bars, gyms, child care facilities and other Anchorage businesses on Monday can operate at full steam for the first time in more than a year, after the Assembly voted to lift many of the city’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Business owners welcomed the change, saying the rollback will let them reach full capacity. They say it sends a positive signal that it’s safe to go out.

But some business owners also say the change presents challenges, such as balancing higher customer numbers with COVID-19 concerns, and finding employees despite few applicants.

Tent City Taphouse, a downtown restaurant that opened during the pandemic, will be able to seat 10 extra customers and add three tables — a 10% increase, owner JC Snead said.

He said he’ll maintain strict sanitation standards, including regular cleanings by a disinfectant company. The restaurant survived the city’s dine-in closure in December and doesn’t want a return to those days if COVID-19 cases spike again.

“This is a big step for the community,” he said. “The key is that everyone stays safe, does their part, and we don’t move backward and repeat this cycle all over again.”

The city’s mask mandate remains in place. But under the new rules, numerous requirements become recommendations. Businesses won’t be held to 6-foot spacing orders between groups of customers. Bars and restaurants won’t be limited to seated table service.

The Birchwood Saloon in Chugiak plans to reopen Wednesday on Cinco de Mayo. It closed with the December restrictions, bartender Jo Rainwater said.

“The pandemic turned us into the inhospitality industry,” she said. “We’re ready to be the hospitality industry again.”

The saloon will remain “COVID-conscious,” Rainwater said. Its two owners face high risk of serious complications if they catch the disease. (At one point earlier this year, Rainwater turned the shuttered saloon into an informal COVID-19 vaccine call center.)

The saloon will set some tables 6 feet apart, but not others, to satisfy the range of customer concerns, she said.

They might expand an outdoor beer garden so guests can spill outside. They can open the doors in summer to bring in fresh air.

“We know some people will see (the rollback) as a free-for-all, but a good portion of people will not,” she said. “We want to be respectful of both.”

She hopes customers respect each other, too, and bartenders won’t have to ask anyone to mask up.

Customers seem ready to return to the saloon along the Glenn Highway, she said. That’s based on the flurry of phone calls and activity on its Facebook page after a beer delivery truck arrived earlier in the week.

“We see you peeking, wondering what we’re up to,” she said of the customers. “We’re feeling the love.”

‘An almost immediate response from the public’

The day after the rollback, 49th State Brewing Co. took 17 requests for event space for occasions like birthday parties, said David McCarthy, an owner.

Event requests had stopped during the pandemic, he said.

“We are very happy to see an almost immediate response from the public,” he said.

[TSA extends mask mandate for planes and public transportation until September]

McCarthy said the COVID-19 restrictions were especially tough on the hospitality industry. The rollback can help reverse the damage, he said.

The brewery and restaurant will be able to bring back more tables and is starting to think about hosting live music outside again this summer. It will continue to promote vaccinations among employees and maintain safety standards like sanitizing UVC lights.

He said the return to pre-pandemic capacity will take time.

49th State cut its staff by about 100 amid the restrictions and slowdown in business, he said.

But now job applicants are hard to find because some former employees are choosing new careers, he said. Extra government aid for the unemployed could also be a contributor, he said.

New workers will need a couple weeks of training.

“It’s a good problem to have,” McCarthy said. “But guests will have to be patient with us and others in the hospitality industry as we get back on our feet again.”

Gyms say customers remain wary

Restrictions and customer wariness during the pandemic led to the closure of two Body Renew fitness centers in Anchorage, said Brian Horschel, owner of Body Renew Alaska.

The mandate for mask-wearing even during workouts will continue to be a problem for his business, he said, because it can be uncomfortable for customers to work out wearing masks.

The city requires mask wearing based on the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal agency says masks are effective at helping reduce the spread of COVID-19, especially indoors, as the virus spreads mainly through respiratory droplets in the air.

The 6-foot distancing requirements have not been an issue, he said. That’s because fewer people are working out in gyms, so there’s more space.

Robert Brewster, chief executive of The Alaska Club, said the lifting of the restrictions is helpful.

“We certainly think this sends a message to the public that the pandemic is less problematic for the safe use of facilities like ours,” he said.

[Here’s what epidemiologists know so far about Alaska’s ‘vaccine breakthrough’ cases]

The Alaska Clubs are large enough that the social distancing requirements haven’t really been an issue, he said.

The steam rooms can now open, he said.

The chain is also looking forward to a time when exercisers don’t need to wear masks. He said no COVID-19 cases have been linked to the 14 clubs, which he attributes in part to filtration and purification systems installed during the pandemic.

“We’d rather have an environment without masks, but we’re committed to making sure our members are protected,” he said.

Child care facilities plan to continue precautions

Cecilia Kimball, office manager with Northern Lights Preschool and Child Care in Midtown, said the business plans to continue screening kids’ temperatures, despite those requirements being lifted.

“We’re dealing with different kids from different families, and we want to make sure we are on the safe side of the kids, and the people working in the building,” Kimball said.

The center is waiting for guidance from the city before it finalizes plans, she said.

[Alaska’s COVID-19 vaccine pace has slowed as hospitalizations, cases rise in least-vaccinated regions]

Carousel Child Care Center in East Anchorage is also planning to continue screening kids, said Sean Shawcross, an owner.

“We are pretty proud” that COVID-19 has led to classroom shutdowns only a couple of times, he said.

Under the city rules, child care centers have kept kids of different ages, and their caregiver, separate from other groups, he said.

That’s led to higher employment costs in the sector since more caregivers stay on hand when even just a few kids remain at the end of the day, he said.

Carousel is waiting on the city to provide child care guidelines before finalizing plans, Shawncross said. If possible, the center will slowly mix age groups in the future, he said.

Eventually, the eased rules could also help the center close again at 7 p.m., rather than 6 p.m. That could help rebuild clientele, he said.

“I’d love to be full again,” he said. “It’s been a tough year.”

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