Hard-hit Anchorage restaurants prepare for more restrictions

a person stands just outside a restaurant window
Tastee-Freez owner Rich Owens poses outside of his restaurant just before opening for the day on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

As COVID-19 cases soar in Anchorage, restaurants are bracing for the possibility of another shutdown, but Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson said late last week that she had no immediate plans for new emergency mandates, but noted the city may need to take  action soon. 

The last time the city called for a shutdown on indoor dining, in August, Anchorage had just under 1,000 active cases of COVID-19. Last week the city crossed 9,000. Other cities and states across the country have seen similar surges and have begun to lock down again, and if things don’t start to flatten out, it appears that’s where Anchorage is headed too.

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JC Snead is a co-owner of Tent City Taphouse, which just opened its doors downtown in September. With city social distancing restrictions, Snead said they’re using fewer tables than they’d planned for and they lost all of their bar seating. 

“It’s really taking a hit, you know, people don’t want to go out and dine out, even sitting six feet away from people,” he said. “It’s just, it’s scary times.”

Even with such a young restaurant, Snead is optimistic about their path forward if another shutdown happens. Right now about 10 percent of their business is takeout, and that number is growing.

“It’s a little scary, but we have an awesome local community here. So I think if everyone just supports one another and continues to support local, I think we’ll all get through this.”

two people outside their restaurant
Queen of Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant owners Dawit Ogbamichael and Samrawit Haile pose outside of their restaurant just before opening for the day on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Across town at the Tastee Freez in Sand Lake, owner Rich Owens went ahead and closed the dining room this week. He said it was too hard to make sure people were following city mandates and ensure that the tables remained sanitized. 

With case numbers the way they are, he said he couldn’t risk indoor dining, even though, for an ice cream and fast food joint, winter is already a tough time.

“We traditionally don’t make money anyway — it’s very lean, November through February. So if we take 20% off of that, it’s… it’ll be a tough four months.”

Anchorage’s only Ethiopian restaurant, Queen of Sheba, is facing a similar situation, made worse by the threat of a shutdown. Dawit Ogbamichael says the restaurant used to be packed, pre-pandemic. But now every time there’s a case surge, business plummets.

“Once they announce something about the virus is getting worse, hunker down, or do this and do that, nobody comes for takeout or anything,” he said. “It’s flat dead, nothing.”

For a restaurant centered around dine-in service, moving to takeout or delivery was difficult. Ogbamichael says they’ve added breakfast with Ethiopian coffee and grab-and-go lunch options to help them stay afloat. 

A month ago, Ogbamichael and his wife Samrawit Haile were ready to call it quits on the restaurant, when an anonymous donor slipped an envelope of cash through their mail slot. 

“The note said ‘I’m doing this because I can help. Please don’t close.’ That’s all it said, no name, no nothing,” he said. “So every customer that comes, we keep saying thank you. We’re paying our rent and electricity. I mean, [before that] we were ready to close.”

Even with the surprise donation and a few rounds of CARES Act grants from the city, Ogbamichael said, without regular dining traffic, the restaurant’s future is bleak. 

“I don’t blame anyone for not coming. I can’t predict it but it’s gonna be.. it’s grim. I can’t predict it but I can see what’s coming to us.”

Ogbamichael and other restaurant owners don’t blame diners for staying in while COVID-19 reaches alarming levels in Anchorage. And whether there is a shutdown or not, he said, a winter of high COVID transmission is going to be a rough few months for everyone.