Restaurants can open, but doing it safely is complicated, owners say, and many are taking it slow

Anchorage restaurant, Turkish Delight, closed its doors to the public in March 2020. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

When Anchorage restaurants are officially allowed to reopen for dine-in service on Monday, not all of them say they’ll be unlocking their doors. Instead, they are taking it slow and with caution.

The risks are high to employees and the public. Logistics are complicated. Rules and best practices are unclear. Safety gear is in short supply. Rushing it, they say, doesn’t seem wise.

Middleway Cafe, 49th State Brewing, and Glacier Brewhouse are among those who say they’re not planning on reopening for dine-in immediately. 

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Bridget Tatalias, general manager of Simon & Seafort’s, is also leery of opening back up too soon. She’s awaiting guidance from the mayor before making a final decision.

“I really need to know what the rules of engagement are gonna be before we put a firm timetable together,” she said. 

But there are also other logistical issues that she said she needs to resolve even with a green light from the city. If disposable menus are required, will they be able to get them printed? And what about PPE for staff? She said corporate partners are working to secure a shipment, but she still isn’t sure when she’ll be able to have enough to safely reopen. 

“They are working on a supply source for us, and whether we can have them and have the appropriate amount available to the team by Monday is yet to be determined. Right now, I don’t have them in the facility,” she said. 

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And with dozens of restaurants vying for the same materials, competition to get enough will be tough. While Tatalias is hoping to open as soon as possible, Monday looks increasingly unlikely.

For Barb Whitney, a chef and part-owner of Red Chair Cafe, Monday can’t come soon enough. 

“If we were able to open tomorrow, we would be able to open tomorrow,” she said. “So we are all set to open. Our tables are all set to be spaced out correctly. We’re set up for 25% capacity. We’re stocked and prepped and we are ready to go.”

Whitney said that she’s confident the sanitation and distancing procedures they’ve already come up with are enough to keep customers and staff safe. She’s awaiting further guidance from the mayor. She said she understands the concerns about a hasty reopening, but keeping the six-year-old business alive and her tight-knit staff of seven on the payroll is at the front of her mind. 

“It’s really emotional for me,” she said. “The motivation is that we need to get back to work in order to survive. I understand people’s concerns, and we are very sympathetic to that and aware and my staff and I. We need to get back to work.”

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Glenn Brady, the owner of Silver Gulch Brewery, already has experience with dine-in service during the coronavirus. His restaurant in Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is one of the few that’s been allowed to stay open for dine-in service during the pandemic, and he said he’s developed increasingly stringent cleaning protocols as the virus spread. 

“Backs of chairs that you might normally do every day, now we’re doing every customer,” he said. “In addition to transitioning to entirely one-way packaging, no more dirty dishes or glassware coming back, everything is in single-use.”

He said as a restaurant owner and board member of CHARR, the state’s restaurant lobbying group, he’s been pushing for strict guidelines for reopening. He said he’s not entirely happy with the guidelines released by Gov. Mike Dunleavy earlier this week, which he thought were rushed out without enough consultation with industry.

“Yes, that’s actually a sore subject at the moment,” he said. 

Brady said he was hoping that industry would have more than four days from the time the governor announced the reopening to prepare. He said that would have allowed restaurants to train staff in a way that would keep them safe — something he sees as key to making sure the statewide spread of the disease is kept at a minimum. 

“It gets back to employee safety, customer safety, and safety of the community,” he said. “We have to make sure we get this right when we reopen.”

Restaurants around town know that one mistake could be costly, not only to their own reputations but to the community as a whole.