Anchorage bar, restaurant closure throws thousands of workers into limbo

Rita Aleck, 35, served cocktails at McGinley’s Pub in downtown Anchorage, which, along with the city’s other bars and restaurants, has been closed to in-person service by Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

Thousands of Anchorage residents who had jobs on Monday woke up without them Tuesday morning.

That’s after Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, seeking to contain the spread of the coronavirus, ordered bars and restaurants to close to sit-down service. Now, business owners and workers are trying to figure out what’s next, after seeing their incomes cut off indefinitely with less than a day’s notice.

“Decisions were made politically that they had their reasons for. But for us, it was a complete blindside,” said Jack Lewis, who co-owns and runs seven different Anchorage area restaurants. “Nobody really was prepared for it, or saw it coming.”

[Read more: Anchorage suspends restaurant dining, bar service]

On Tuesday, Lewis said he was stuck with some $50,000 in perishable food, some of which was delivered Monday morning.

He hopes to sell as much as possible in take-out and delivery orders. But he and others in the service industry, including employees, say they’re still waiting to see what kind of assistance will be available to them. Berkowitz’s closure order runs for two weeks, but it’s far from certain that at that point people will be able to return to work. Gov. Mike Dunleavy also expanded the closure late Tuesday to cover restaurants and bars statewide.

“I’m like, ‘Okay, what can I sell?’” said Rita Aleck, a cocktail server who, until Monday, worked at one of Lewis’ businesses, McGinley’s Pub in downtown Anchorage. “I’m going to do the best I can to take care of myself. But I think the biggest thing is all the question marks in all the different directions. … It’s hard to know how to feel when you don’t know what’s going to come next.”

In the space of a single day, nearly an entire workforce in Anchorage found itself in a similar predicament to Aleck. What’s known as the “eating and drinking” sector is responsible for yearly payroll of about $250 million and some 11,500 jobs in Anchorage, or about 8% of the total, according to Neal Fried, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

[Read more coronavirus coverage from Alaska Public Media]

The bar and restaurant closure is also the latest coronavirus-related blow to a state economy already reeling from low oil prices and an expected big hit to Alaska’s tourism industry. The big question around the closure is its timeline, Fried said.

“If it’s two weeks, obviously the impact would probably be pretty small,” he said. “Most people believe it might be longer than that. But it’s just the uncertainty, I think, that creates the greatest difficulty. We just don’t know how long this could last.”

Restaurant owners said the uncertainty is one of their biggest concerns, too.

Lewis — whose businesses include BurgerFis, Krispy Kremes and Firetap Alehouses — says he hopes to get some relief, whether it’s on his existing government backed small business loans or his utility bills, or from his bank. What he really wants to know from policymakers soon is what that relief will look like, so he can work out his own plans.

“Tell us what you’re going to do quickly. Make a decision. How do you ease the pain? Because you can carry us, a little bit,” he said.

The number of jobs that vaporized Monday from Lewis’ businesses alone are stark. On Tuesday, he normally would have had 140 workers on the job, but instead, he had about 35 handling takeout. Another business owner, Matt Tomter, said he had 12 workers between two of his Matanuska Brewing Company pubs, down from nearly 150 across several locations before the closures.

Laid-off workers can seek unemployment benefits from the state, which is urging people to file online.

But the program is capped at about $1,500 dollars a month — less than half of what many veteran service staff earn. And because many bar and restaurant workers don’t report all their cash tips, a big chunk of their income may not factor into their benefits.

To help workers affected by the coronavirus, Dunleavy’s administration is coordinating with Alaska’s Congressional delegation and state lawmakers to try to create tax credits for sick and family leave, and to loosen some of the strict qualifying standards for unemployment, said Cathy Muñoz, deputy commissioner at the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Congress is eyeing a stimulus package that could include direct cash relief payments of $1,000 or more to each American.

“This is an all hands on deck effort,” Muñoz said. “We are going to get through this, and we are pulling together and getting all of the resources together to help the employer community and help the employees that are directly impacted.”

In a prepared statement, a spokeswoman for Berkowitz, Carolyn Hall, said the mayor was also in touch with state and federal leaders to encourage “swift action” in response to the economic havoc caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

She also pointed to announcements that city electric and water utilities had suspended shutoffs, the suspension of eviction proceedings by Anchorage courts and an “Economic Resiliency Task Force” that Berkowitz created.

Aleck, the cocktail server, said she’ll be okay if Berkowitz’s order doesn’t extend past its two-week time frame. Beyond that, though, she said she’s uncertain — she’s got rent and credit card payments to make.

With two decades of service experience, Aleck said she normally would have no trouble finding another job. But what if her chosen industry doesn’t exist for months?

“My resume looks great to anyone in any restaurant, bar,” she said. “But the rest of the world is like: ‘What can we do with you?’”

Aleck did not object to the decision to close down restaurants and bars. She said she just wants elected officials to make sure they follow through and take care of the people affected.

And right now, based on the level of fear and anxiety she sees at grocery stores and on city streets, she said she’s not sure that’s happening yet.

“There’s a bunch of people out here who really need to know that things are going to be handled — that we’re not going to be shut out, that we are going to be considered,” she said. “That now that they made a decision to go ahead and cut us off from each other, that they are going to help get through that decision by backing up their plan and making it work for all of us.”

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