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Frustration builds for Southcentral Alaska restaurants amidst third shutdown

Halfway through the city’s third pandemic shutdown, Anchorage’s hospitality industry is struggling and increasingly frustrated. 

“Being shut down the entire month of December is a big blow to our restaurant,” said Frans Weits, co-owner of Girdwood eatery Jack Sprat. “We depend on December to make up for some slow fall months.” 

Weits said swinging between shutdowns and partial-capacity reopenings over the last eight months have made it challenging to keep the restaurant staffed. During the first shutdown in March, he said he had to cut staff by two-thirds and business dropped by 75 percent. Rehiring is slow and difficult, and by the time they get close to fully staffed, it’s time for another shutdown. 

“It’s really hard to navigate, hard to give our staff and customers confidence that we’re going to be there for them,” he said.

Weits disagrees with the city’s emergency orders that have shut restaurants to indoor dining this month. For an industry that is already highly regulated for cleanliness and sanitation, he said it feels like restaurants are being singled out. 

He’s not alone. 

“You walk in our restaurant, you’re getting hand sanitizer, filling out contact tracing forms, you’ve got your mask on, and someone’s not letting you in if you don’t,” said Matt Tomter of Matanuska Brewing Company. “That’s not happening in other businesses across the city.”

Tomter is working with other restaurateurs on a plan he hopes will allow restaurants to open with specific operating conditions for ventilation and cleanliness. The group met with Acting Mayor Quinn-Davidson via Zoom earlier this month. Tomter said she turned down the initial plan, but gave them the go-ahead to collect more information on ventilation standards to send through the city’s Project Management and Engineering Department. 

Tomter is hopeful they can work with the city on a plan to reopen restaurants safely. 

“We want our people working again, but we want to do it safely,” he said. “We’re not in the business of having people show up to our place and get a disease. None of us want to do that.”

During a state of the city address on Monday, Quinn-Davidson said the administration is considering creative proposals, including ventilation systems, to allow for safe indoor dining — but for now, they’re relying on the available science. 

Janet Johnston, an epidemiologist with the Anchorage Health Department said all available data indicates indoor dining poses the “highest risk” of COVID-19 transmission. 

“The longer people spend together without masks on, the more likely you get transmission. And so any place — a restaurant, a bar, an entertainment facility — where people are taking off masks to eat and drink, these are all places where transmission happens,” she said.

Quinn-Davidson emphasized that while hospitality businesses may seem they’re being singled out, it’s because of the nature of COVID-19 spread, not because restaurants are at fault. 

“I think that there’s this misperception that the reason that restaurants are closed to indoor service right now is because they’re doing something wrong, or because they’re not clean, or they’re not following the rules. And I think, by and large, that is not true at all,” she said. “The problem is the virus.”

But as the virus continues to spread, relief options for struggling restaurants are growing thin. The city appropriated its last $15.4 million in federal CARES Act money last week. 

Jack Sprat was able to get a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and a Small Business Administration loan to keep from falling into bankruptcy at the beginning of the pandemic. Weits said they also received CARES Act relief money from the municipality, but it wasn’t much compared to the loss in revenue the restaurant is experiencing.

“If you’re going to shut down an industry, then at least produce some funds to keep people alive,” he said. “But we’re not seeing that response happen quick enough, we’re not seeing amounts big enough. We’re just hanging on wondering what’s going to happen as we reach the end of the month.”

Benjamin Ormsby, co-owner of Alaska Denali Winery said he went through his personal savings trying to stay afloat through the August shutdown. And he said he and his wife weren’t eligible for CARES Act funds because they didn’t own the winery on March 1.

“We’ve had several conversations about how to possibly stay open,” he said. “I don’t intend on closing … We’ll figure out a way. It’s just, you know, figuring out how to do it.”

As restaurants continue to carry the brunt of pandemic mitigation efforts, some business owners are reportedly considering openly defying the mandates in protest. The conservative blog “Must Read Alaska” wrote on Monday that a group of more than 100 businesses were planning to open at full capacity on Saturday. No list of participating businesses has been published. 

Ormsby said he understands the motivation — he’s opposed to the shutdown himself — but felt it was more important to protect his clients’ health and stay closed.

“I’m not opposed to [other businesses protesting]. They have their options to do what they feel is best for them,” he said. “That’s not what we’re about.”

Municipal attorney Kate Vogel said while the majority of businesses are complying with emergency orders, the city is aware of the planned protest and is monitoring the situation.

“Undermining the sacrifices that other businesses are making … by creating potential super-spreader mask-free events would be unacceptable and harmful,” she said. “Violating a health mandate jeopardizes the health of our community at a time when we can’t afford it.” 

According to Vogel, the city has a number of disciplinary actions available if businesses defy the orders, including thousands of dollars in fines, a two-week business closure and possible suspension of business licenses. She said businesses could also be required to pay back any municipal CARES Act funding they have received. 

“There are lots of ways to support local businesses and we know some of them are hurting,” Vogel added. “We urge residents to buy gift cards, order takeout, order curbside pickup, go during less crowded times to shop retail.”

Tomter said with the challenges facing businesses and the community as a whole, it’s in the industry’s best interest to work with the city to come up with a reopening plan. 

“It does a business very little good to open up if it loses the trust of a huge amount of people in the city,” he said. “Let’s hope we can do it the right way.”

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