Hospitality industry criticizes decision to release the names of bars and restaurants with COVID-19 cases

The Gaslight is among the bars on the city’s list. This photo is from March, when bars across Anchorage closed. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage’s hospitality industry is pushing back on the city’s decision to release the names of restaurants and bars linked to recent COVID-19 cases. 

CHARR, a lobbying group for the restaurant and bar industry, called the decision to release the names of 19 locations, along with the dates when customers and staff may have been exposed to COVID-19, “unfair” in a statement released Tuesday. 

The group pointed out that while many other businesses have had COVID-19-positive customers and staff, only restaurants and bars were named. Some of the restaurants had only had one patron who was positive, according to the municipality’s release. 

RELATED: Anchorage names bars and restaurants where patrons may have been exposed to COVID-19

Some restaurants said the announcement hurt business over the Fourth of July weekend. The restaurant and bar sector has already been hurt deeply by closures and other restrictions related to the pandemic.

The Anchorage Health Department defended its decision in a press release on Monday, writing that bars and restaurants have been the centers of outbreaks around the country.

“…Bars and clubs pose a high risk of transmission to staff and patrons because it is difficult for many customers to practice safe physical distancing and avoid face-to-face contact. This situation is unlike, for example, a grocery store trip that allows the use of masks for the duration of the visit and limited face-to-face contact, or even a personal care visit that involves one customer and one employee in close contact,” according to the release. 

The department said that informing people of possible exposure would allow them to isolate and avoid infecting others. 

RELATED: Anchorage struggles to keep up with contact tracing and testing as cases surge

The health department also noted that some people who had tested positive didn’t cooperate with contact tracers. Anchorage officials previously warned that their contact tracing capacity was strained and said that contact tracing at bars and restaurants was especially complex. 

And the department pointed out that the state had released the names of two Seward bars where there was believed to have been COVID-19 exposure in June. That announcement included the times of exposure. The bars were the center of an outbreak that resulted in dozens of cases. 

John Pattee, the owner of the Gaslight Bar in downtown Anchorage said that his business had a great month of June, but after his business was named as an exposure site on July 3, the Fourth of July weekend was a bust. Business was down about 60% compared to the same weekend last year, he said. Downtown businesses across the board have also been hurt by a sharp decline in tourism. 

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Matthew Tomter, the owner of Matanuska Brewing in Anchorage and Eagle River, said that he was notified about exposure at his restaurant about 30 seconds before the health department’s announcement. He said that his restaurant has “probably the strictest standards of restaurants” including hand sanitizer at the entry, ultraviolet air scrubbers, and a guest log.  

“We’ll be able to call everybody up that was in there on the 26th,” he said in an interview Friday, referring to the date on which he was told a COVID-positive individual was at his restaurant. 

Tomter penned an open letter on behalf of his business to the Anchorage Assembly and mayor saying that the health department should either release the names of all businesses where there has been COVID-19 exposure or none. 

“Singling out business types misrepresents the reality of exposure risks, creating potentially uncorrelated panic which is bad for small businesses, and misleading to the public. The confusion incited with the public release insinuated that these businesses are hot-spots or infectious sites,” he wrote. 

Alaska Public Media’s Liz Ruskin contributed to this story.