More outdoor seating is coming at Alaska’s bars, taprooms and restaurants, but it may take time

wine bottles
Bottles of wine line shelves at a grocery store in Anchorage on June 29. Efforts to expand outdoor seating at Alaska’s bars, restaurants and taprooms are unlikely to reach fruition this summer. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska’s alcohol board voted unanimously Thursday to approve a regulation that allows bar, distillery and winery taprooms to open temporary outdoor seating spaces during the summer.

The move follows a separate vote in May that allows licensed businesses to serve alcohol in outdoor seating areas that aren’t directly adjacent to the licensee.

Both changes were requested by the alcohol industry and unopposed by harm-reduction groups, but they’re unlikely to deliver results this summer. 

Despite the hopes of business owners, the slow pace of regulatory approval and a possible flaw with the May regulation means Alaskans are unlikely to see changes until next summer.

Under state law, new regulations don’t go into effect until 30 days after they’re signed by the lieutenant governor, which means Thursday’s new regulation wouldn’t be binding until August at the earliest.

It’s almost certain to be later than that because the Alaska Department of Law reviews all regulations before they go to the lieutenant governor’s office.

The length of time needed for that review varies. A four-page regulation change approved by the alcohol board in January didn’t get final approval from state attorneys until March, and when the 30-day clock was added in, didn’t become effective until April.

If a similar timeline applies for Thursday’s vote, the new rule wouldn’t take effect until well after temperatures begin their descent toward winter.

And that’s only if the Department of Law finds no problems.

Staff for the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, the agency that regulates the alcohol industry here, said the Department of Law flagged some legal concerns with the outdoor seating rule approved by the board in May. That was intended to help businesses in crowded urban places, like Anchorage.

The extent of the problems wasn’t clear on Thursday; the Department of Law declined comment, citing its ongoing review.

If the problems are significant enough, they would require the alcohol board to take a new vote, restarting the regulatory clock.

Lee Ellis, president of the Brewers Guild of Alaska, said the regulations approved by the state alcohol board in May and on Thursday aren’t directly related, but both “were definitely inspired by the COVID-19 deregulation of outdoor seating.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic emergency, Alaska — as well as many other states — relaxed the rules that regulated outdoor seating for alcohol-serving businesses. 

When the state’s COVID emergency ended, so did the emergency exemptions.

Normally under Alaska law, an outdoor seating area has to be directly adjacent to a licensed building, allowing the owner to extend their license over both a building and an outdoor patio.

In Anchorage and other urban centers, space is limited, and the nearest open area might be across the street. 

“What they were proposing was to allow a discontinuous licensed space so that a server could cross a non-licensed area with beverages like alcohol and cross back into a licensed space,” Ellis said.

He credited Anchorage Assembly member Christopher Constant for leading a municipal-level effort and for encouraging state action.

Constant said he was unaware of the possible problem until contacted by the Beacon.

“For my part, I just want to make sure we can be outside and enjoy our summer,” he said.

Thursday’s rule change, different from the one approved in May, allows bar, winery and distillery taprooms to temporarily open an adjacent outdoor space for alcohol. 

Current rules allow restaurants and bars to operate a temporary outdoor space, but taprooms, regulated differently under state law, aren’t allowed to. They can only have permanent outdoor spaces. One example: a patio in a permanently fenced back yard accessible only through the licensed indoor taproom.

Sean Heismann of Bawden Street Brewing Company in Ketchikan was one of several businesses that wrote in support of the change, calling it a “gigantic benefit” because he would be able to use his outdoor parking lot for seating during the summer tourist season.

“Under the current regulatory regime, the lack of a permitting process for seasonal outdoors seating has all my customers (and employees and investors and …) baffled,” he wrote. “The best I can do to address their confusion and disappointment is shrug my shoulders and mutter, ‘It’s Alaska.’”

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and X.

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