Reopening for Anchorage bars pencils out better than for restaurants. Many are giving it a go.

Nicki Hale, the owner of Van’s Dive Bar in Fairview, mixes a drink at the reopening of her bar. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

At Van’s Dive Bar in Anchorage on Monday, even before official opening time at 5 p.m., a handful of regular customers were lined up outside. 

“We’ve got a good crowd of regular customers. I’m anxious to work with the kids who work down here, we’ve all been together a long time. It’s just hard, it’s been hard for everybody,” said Nicki Hale, who owns the bar.

Things felt surprisingly like they might have before the pandemic made personal contact risky. Most customers were dressed casually, with no face masks. They exchanged hellos and even hugs. 

Get the latest coverage of coronavirus and the economy from Alaska Public Media

But of course, there were some differences. There was a mandatory sign-in sheet at the front door for customers to help contact tracers in the event of an outbreak. The TV played a repeat of a soccer game. There was no live music, usually a staple of the bar.

Because the new reopening rules only allow for 25% customer capacity at bars, Van’s is limited to just 20 people. Hale said that makes booking entertainment, like a four-piece band, unfeasible. 

“That takes four customers away,” she said, “and with these small numbers, it’s not worth it for the event.”

But despite that difficulty, Hale said bars are in better shape than restaurants. Under the second phase of Anchorage’s reopening plan, restaurants can operate at 50% capacity. But organizing staff after a long hiatus is tricky. Hale knows that scene well. Her husband owns Marx Brothers Cafe, which still hasn’t opened for dine-in service, two weeks after it was allowed. 

John Pattee, owner of the Gaslight Bar downtown explained it like this: “It takes a lot more employees to cook a burger than it takes to open a bottle of Bud.”

Pattee also opened on Monday, mechanical bull and all, and said he had a regular waiting at the door at 10 a.m. 

“We’ve completely cleaned the bar, cleaned the floor, repainted, did the whole refresh through the whole bar, so it’s looking pretty good in there,” he said. 

A survey by the Odom Corporation, a major alcohol distributor, showed that a majority of bars in Anchorage are planning to reopen in the coming week. But for bar owners, including Pattee, that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a gamble. 

For a mid-size bar like the Gaslight, he’s allowed 63 customers. He said he’d be happy with that number on a week night, but he estimates that, normally, 80% of his business comes on a weekend. 

“I’m probably gonna be maybe at a break-even or at a loss at this capacity for sure,” he said. “At 25% capacity, I’m projecting maybe breaking even or a small loss.”

There are other challenges as well. McGinley’s Pub in downtown Anchorage falls into a licensing category that makes its reopening paradoxically more difficult than for some small bars. Because more than 50% of its revenue comes from food, it’s categorized as a restaurant, even though part-owner Jack Lewis said he sees McGinley’s as more as a bar. Under his licensing, Lewis could have opened two weeks ago.

Donnie Dont signs into Van’s Dive Bar in one of the new rituals of visiting a bar he frequents. “I usually wear a mask, but like most of these people that are in here, I gave a hug to two days ago, so if I already got it, they already got it,” he said. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

“Right now it’s just an economic calculation for me at McGinley’s, we are planning on reopening, and I’m just waiting on the mandates to be lifted a little more,” he said. 

He says he’ll wait until the establishment is allowed to open at 75% capacity, especially since he must balance the regulations of both bars and restaurants at one establishment. 

“Six-foot separation of the bar stools certainly doesn’t create a very social atmosphere, and then asking bartenders to police family members that do want to put their bar stools together is another challenge,” he said. 

While bar stools should be spaced 6 feet apart, members of the same household are allowed to move them together, but bar and restaurant staff have to make on-the-fly judgments about who really is part of the same household. 

Another challenge for Lewis: hiring enough kitchen staff. He said generous unemployment benefits are making it difficult to convince employees to return to work. 

For recipients of the federal PPP loans like Van’s Dive Bar, getting staff back on payroll is a requirement of the loan. While Hale did have to lay off her employees during Anchorage’s “hunker-down” order, she said, they were happy to return to their jobs. She’s also happy with how many customers have come back.

Within about 15 minutes of opening, Van’s was near capacity. 

“Of course, you never know how long it’s gonna last, you know, (it’s a) honeymoon, it might be all just really anxious to get out and then…” She trailed off. 

But still, for Hale, Monday’s reopening was a success. She said the bar was at capacity all night and the biggest challenge was making sure her patrons were keeping their six-feet distance.