Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced on Wednesday that bars, along with other places of entertainment, could reopen as early as today. But parched Kodiak patrons are in for a disappointment, as some local establishments said on Thursday that they intend to postpone opening their doors.
Tony’s Bar owner Pattie Almeter said she and her business partner George Gatter have decided to delay the reopening of the bar, which closed March 18 after a state mandate ordered all bars to close to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Dunleavy’s announcement marked the second phase of his Reopen Alaska Responsibly plan. The first phase allowed some businesses, including restaurants and hair salons, to open at a limited capacity beginning April 24. But some businesses chose to delay reopening after the first phase was announced, to ensure they were adequately prepared to limit the spread of the virus.
Almeter said that because it has been less than 14 days since most businesses reopened, it’s too early to tell if it has led to a spike in cases. She intends to wait two weeks — until May 20 — to make a decision on when to reopen.
“If we don’t have any more cases in Kodiak after a couple more weeks, we will reevaluate around the 20th,” she said. “After more people have been out and about.”
For her, the decision about whether or not to reopen came down to the safety of the community, trumping the additional economic fallout of a prolonged closure.
“We just thought it would be safer for our employees and customers,” she said, adding that she is a little concerned about the financial fallout for the businesses, “but the safety is more important.”
The bar’s five employees are currently receiving unemployment benefits, and Almeter said she has applied for a loan through the Payroll Protection Program. Her application is still being processed.
She said she is unsure how to limit the bar’s occupancy to 25% percent — a requirement under the governor’s mandate — or how to ensure patrons keep a safe distance between each other.
During the summer season, Tony’s is a popular spot for fishermen to unwind when they are in port, and with many fishermen coming to Kodiak from off-island for the season, she said she is concerned about contributing to the spread of the virus.
“That’s their social time. With all these other people coming in with fishing, that’s a concern, considering what happened in Cordova,” she said.
Cordova recorded its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on Tuesday, diagnosed in an employee of the Ocean Beauty fish processing plant. The employee had arrived in Cordova from out of state two weeks prior to testing positive for the virus. The employee did not display any symptoms prior to the test, which was part of a routine screening required by Ocean Beauty.
“Someone flying in from out of state and spreading it in Kodiak would be devastating,” Almeter said.
In order to open, Tony’s would have to submit a mitigation plan to the Kodiak Emergency Operation Center. But she said that complying with the mandates would require significant amounts of cleaning supplies and soaps to continually disinfect the bar, and those items have been in limited supply on the island.
Under the new mandate, restaurants are allowed to increase their dine-in capacity from 25% to 50%. Reservations will no longer be required, allowing walk-ins. But Raymond LeGrue, owner of Henry’s Great Alaskan Restaurant, said that the rule change will likely not make a difference for his restaurant, which has struggled with low turnout ever since it reopened for dine-in service two weeks ago.
LeGrue said that while the rules allow for up to 25% capacity, the restaurant has seen a peak of 10% capacity. Most in-house diners are single individuals, while families have chosen to stick with take-out options.
“Our business is consistently all to-go,” LeGrue said, adding that most diners are kept away by fear. “We’re trying to figure out how we can get people in the door.”
Diners can still only share a table with members of their own family, but because of low turnout and Henry’s capacity — the restaurant can normally seat up to 98 people — LeGrue said non-family members can still enjoy a meal together by sitting at neighboring tables, 6 feet apart.
The restaurant, which typically employs a staff of around 35, is down to 20 mostly part-time staffers. For some employees, particularly those working the night shift, this was a second job, meaning they are ineligible for unemployment benefits despite the lost income.
“Some employees have been able to access unemployment. Some haven’t,” he said. “Half my staff is in the tip pool, and the tips have been down 80%, so it doesn’t go very far.”
LeGrue said the restaurant is down to preparing around 20% of its normal food volume. And without revenue from the bar or pull tabs, it has been an ongoing struggle to keep the business afloat. He was recently approved for a Payroll Protection Program loan of around $250,000, covering two and half months of payroll. But if business doesn’t pick up soon, even that won’t cut it.
“Without government support, we wouldn’t be able to survive this,” he said. Utilities alone for the restaurant are $20,000. “It just doesn’t work. You’d be looking at $25 hamburgers. It’s all a matter of volume.”
To increase foot traffic in the restaurant, LeGrue is considering introducing a major discount for dine-in services, as bulk-ordered food and beverage items near the limit of their shelf life.
“People are just hiding in their house. They think they’re going to catch it,” he said. “It’s just really bleak.”
John “Rusty” Fletcher, owner of the 50-year-old Orpheum Theatre, said he would not reopen for movie screenings this week, despite the new mandate permitting theaters to resume operations at a 25% capacity limit.
The theater will be open on Friday and Saturday evenings to sell popcorn and hot dogs from the concession stand via drive-thru service.
Fletcher said a lot has to happen before he will be able to reopen the theater for movie screenings, including submitting a mitigation plan, blocking off seating rows, ordering plexiglass barriers for the concession stand, and getting back in touch with the film distributors.
“It would be nice if I was Harry Potter and had a magic wand, but it ain’t going to work that way,” he said. “I just can’t go and open up right now.”
He said the theater may open next week, but could not commit to a specific date. Prior to the governor’s announcement, he thought “we would be lucky if we would be able to open June 1.”
The theater received loans through the Small Business Administration and the Payroll Protection Program, but Fletcher said that due to the prolonged closure, he will likely have to apply again to increase funding amounts.
Fletcher, who has been running the movie theater since 1973, said that due to health concerns, he may have to remain behind the ticket booth once the theater opens.
Before the theater closed March 18, it was set to screen “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Jumanji: The Next Level.” The theater would possibly screen those films when it returns to business, Fletcher said.
Despite the difficulties in restarting business in Kodiak, many establishments have begun putting in the effort, employing strategies from online orders to limited occupancy.
Lindsay Knight, owner and operator of the Kodiak Athletic Club, said he would have a soft opening of the gym on Saturday, and officially reopen on Monday.
Athletic facilities are permitted to operate up to 25% capacity, but Knight said that limiting occupancy will likely not be an issue, as the gym typically has fewer than 10 patrons at a time.
“There are rarely more than a handful of people there at any given time,” he said in a Facebook message. “Summer time is slower for all gyms, and another probably significant number will still not return yet due to the COVID potential.”
Knight said that due to limited space, most Kodiak gyms would not be able to change the layout of athletic equipment within their gyms.
“I do have to pay attention and watch to make sure not too many come in, but most of my people don’t like it crowded already,” he said. “They will look in, then come back at a quieter time.”
Knight said the gym has already taken a financial hit due to the closure, but thanks to a low overhead — with rent as the biggest bill — he expects to weather the storm.
Kodiak Emergency Services Council Director Mike Tvenge said the EOC has already received 57 mitigation plans from local businesses, up from 40 last week. Ten additional plans were being processed as of Thursday.
While the governor’s mandate allows libraries to open up to 25% occupancy and swimming pools to open up to 50% capacity, Tvenge said the city-run library, pool and playgrounds will remain closed until the city council discusses reopening city facilities during a scheduled meeting on Tuesday.
All city facilities will submit a mitigation plan similar to the ones required from local businesses, Tvenge said. Businesses with an approved plan will receive a notice to post on their store front, notifying customers that the establishment is compliant with state mandates.
“We’re very happy to see the businesses submitting those plans,” Tvenge said. “It is our responsibility to protect ourselves, our families and others. Let’s not let our guard down.”
As many businesses still require staff members to wear masks and urge patrons to wear them, the EOC continues its effort to distribute masks to Kodiak residents at no cost.
Having already distributed 2,000 locally sewn masks, they are now coordinating the production and distribution of 2,000 additional masks. Mask makers will be compensated by the EOC at a rate of $5 per mask. The masks are distributed free of charge Mondays and Fridays between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. near the Gerald C. Wilson Auditorium entrance.
“We have noticed those in our community wearing masks, social distancing, taking personal protective precautions. But we’re also noticing those that are not respecting this virus,” Tvenge said. “We have not canceled the virus. The virus is still there. So we have to be always vigilant in taking care of ourselves.”