‘We’re all angry’: Anchorage restaurants lay off workers and shut down dine-in, while others defy order

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Melissa Hutchinson is a waitress and the dayshift supervisor at Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant in Anchorage. She was laid off on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

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Melissa Hutchinson is a waitress and the dayshift supervisor at Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant in Anchorage. She was laid off on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Employees from Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant filtered into the Anchorage business on Wednesday to pick up their last paychecks. All of the workers got laid off two days before, when the city shut down dine-in service.

“There’s a lot of tears,” said waitress Melissa Hutchinson, a single mom of two who has worked at Gwennie’s for 17 years, since she was 21. “It’s just overwhelming.”

Like Gwennie’s, restaurants across Anchorage are having to make tough decisions as they quickly respond to the latest restrictions from Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. As the city tries to fight a surge in coronavirus infections, it has ordered restaurants, breweries and bars to stop indoor dining for four weeks, starting Monday.

Some restaurants have scrambled to set up additional outdoor dining and to lean more heavily on takeout business. But others, like Gwennie’s, say they don’t have the money to buy outside seating and tents, and they’re not a place many people order to-go food from. They’re not sure how to make it all work. They’re laying off staff. They’re worried they’ll have to close their doors for good. They say they’re mad, scared and frustrated. For months, they say, they’ve pinballed between orders — complying with closures, capacity restrictions and new sanitation measures.

“We’re all angry. We did everything the mayor asked us to do. And then he shuts us down with no notice again, basically just pulls the plug on us,” said Gwennie’s owner Ron Eagley. “I was shocked, absolutely shocked.”

A few other local restaurants are choosing to defy the mayor’s order completely.

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Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant is empty on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The normally busy dining room was shut down on Monday to comply with the city’s new order. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

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Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant is empty on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The normally busy dining room was shut down on Monday to comply with the city’s new order. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

All week, people have crowded Kriner’s Diner, waiting in line to get inside and offering big tips to support the business that refuses to shut down its indoor dining. To the south, Little Dipper Diner is also continuing to serve meals inside. The business says the mayor’s order is unfair, and it will not survive if it closes for the month.

Two more businesses have also joined in the protest: Jackie’s Place and Wings ‘N Things.

Jackie’s owner Janice Johnson said she was hesitant to open her restaurant to indoor dining on Thursday, but after meeting with employees, she decided it was the right thing to do. She said that the restaurant could survive by doing takeout, but she’d have to lay off staff.

“Today we will take a stand with what we feel is fair,” she posted on Facebook Thursday morning.

Johnson said she’s unsure how long she’ll keep dine-in service going. She said worries about escalating fines and repercussions as the city cracks down on restaurants not following the new rules.

Municipal Attorney Kate Vogel said the city is fining businesses and has posted notices at Kriner’s and Little Dipper ordering them to stop dine-in service immediately. The city also took Kriner’s to court on Thursday. It filed for a temporary injunction to force the restaurant to comply with the mayor’s restrictions.

“Our choice is to approach this vigorously and respond every day,” Vogel said.

Berkowitz has said Anchorage must take action to slow the spread of the virus so it doesn’t overwhelm the city’s health care system. The number of infections soared in July, and Berkowitz has said the virus is particularly susceptible to spreading in indoor spaces where people can’t stay masked the whole time, like restaurants and bars.

But Eagley, at Gwennie’s, said while the city has identified infections among people who have visited or work at restaurants and bars, he’s not aware of any big outbreaks linked to one of the businesses. That’s what angers him most about the new restrictions.

“We know the fishing industry caused a big, huge problem. But I haven’t heard where the bars and restaurants have any of these outbreaks,” he said. “So I don’t know why we’re being punished and penalized.”

Eagley said he considered not closing Gwennie’s dining room, so his workers could keep their job. But, he said, he’s not sure it’s worth the fight with the city. He plans to do takeout until the restaurant runs out of food.

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A take out only sign at Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant in Anchorage. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

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A take out only sign at Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant in Anchorage. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

“I’ve been in the business 38 years,” he said. “My true thought at this moment is: Shut the place down, sell the building and retire. I don’t need the money. I’m just doing this to try to employ people and if the government won’t let me employ people, why am I here?”

At Bradley House, owner Berni Bradley said she’s not surprised that Berkowitz put restrictions back in place with the number of infections rising.

“My staff is upset about it. They’re getting reduced hours, and I just tell them that there’s going to be future shutdowns that we’ve got to be prepared for,” she said. “I wouldn’t want the mayor’s job right now.”

She said her restaurant has done major renovations and policy changes to adapt to the current coronavirus reality. She’s treating it as a five-year plan, just in case.

Bradley said she’s also relying on the restaurant’s outdoor space more to accommodate diners. She feels for the restaurants that don’t have that option, or don’t have the money on hand to quickly overhaul their businesses.

“I really sympathize with other restaurants,” she said. “Some of these restaurateurs have probably taken equity out of their house and maximized their credit cards and maximized their loans and their friends and their families, and they have nowhere else to turn except revenue to pay these bills.”

Bill Popp, president and chief executive of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation, said he’s hopeful help is on the way.

Popp said he recently submitted a proposal to the Anchorage Assembly to put aside $10 million for the hospitality industry from the city’s $150 million in federal CARES Act funding. That money would go to laid-off workers and toward restaurants’ bills.

“We realize that what we’re asking for is not easy,” the proposal said. “Anchorage’s hospitality businesses have made hard decisions, too; they’ve laid off workers, shut their doors, cut costs where they could. Now, we’re asking for our elected leaders to stand up for them before we lose them.”

The Anchorage Assembly will meet Friday to consider using some of the federal money to help small businesses.

City spokeswoman Carolyn Hall said businesses refusing to shut down indoor dining could lose access to that money.

Popp said he expects the four-week shutdown of dine-in service to trigger hundreds of layoffs. Employment was already down about 25% in June compared to last year, he said.

“In all likelihood, this is probably going to take us back to, you know, 40% to 50% of that workforce,” he said about the food service and bar industry.

Meanwhile, Hutchinson, the waitress laid off from Gwennie’s, continues to go to the restaurant every day as a volunteer, she said. She’s hoping for tips from takeout, but she’s not making a salary.

“You might go home with 20 bucks at the end of day, you know, but it’s $20 more than you had when you came in the door,” Hutchinson said.

She teared up often as she talked about what the past few months have been like. She said she worries about how her coworkers are going to pay their bills. She has applied for unemployment herself, and she’s calculating what she and her two sons might have to give up.

“I don’t know how we’re going to put gas in the car sometimes,” she said. “I’m applying for food stamps so I can hopefully feed the kids.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when Anchorage employment numbers in the food service and bar industry were down 25%. The data is based on June data compared to last year, not July.