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'We're All In This Together:' Unalaska Restaurants Grapple With Possible Reopening

Hope McKenney/KUCB

For over a month now, Unalaska's bars and restaurants have been closed to dine-in services. A statewide mandate beginning Wednesday, March 18 closed restaurants to the public, except for takeout and delivery services, and since then the service industry has been scrambling to understand and adapt to a completely new and turbulent business model.


In Unalaska, where the absence of a reliable airline in combination with coronavirus travel restrictions have drastically lowered the typical foot traffic, the restaurants and bars have been especially hard hit.


''The kind of volume that we usually see, we're nowhere near there,'' said Lisa Tran, manager at Dutch Harbor's Airport Restaurant. ''Most days we're struggling to break even trying to make enough to pay our staff—the limited people who are still here.'' 


Business at the Norwegian Rat Saloon is down by 85 percent. And while drive-thru food service has not been restricted by any of the state mandates, for Julie Guitard, owner of Willow Bean Coffee, business has become extremely slow. According to Brett Richardson, general manager at the Grand Aleutian Hotel, for the first time since its opening, the Grand has had to close its doors. That includes the hotel itself, along with its four restaurants. 


''This is unprecedented. We're open every day, 365 days a year. We don't close. The doors to The Grand Aleutian have always been open, since it was built,'' said Richardson. ''And for us to have to shut down certain aspects of our operation, it's a shock, and it's obviously a scary time for a lot of people.''


Richardson acknowledged that the Grand is still technically open, and staff is still there, ''treading water.''


Richardson's anxiety concerning maintaining buoyancy is a common fear among local bars and restaurants. Even with extra support from the community—purchasing gift cards and continuing to order takeout meals—most businesses have had to cut staff hours and numbers and are still unsure of how they will emerge financially and emotionally from the coronavirus pandemic.


''There's just so much unknown,'' reflects Guitard. ''I'm just kind of taking things day by day at this point, and just trying to stay open and trying to stay in business.''


An air of uncertainty as to how long state and local mandates will last and how they may abruptly change fosters an additional layer of frustration and concern for local business owners. Despite that discomfort, many have been patiently waiting, hoping to hear news that some of the restrictions have been lifted.


And there may finally be a flicker of hope materializing for local restaurant owners and managers. On Wednesday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a mandate that lifts statewide measures restricting dine-in access, under certain conditions, starting Friday, April 24. However, restaurants in Unalaska are still being held to a local order that remains in effect until at least April 29


''Because the Governor removed the language preempting local orders, Unalaska's Resolution 2020-19, remains in effect until April 29, 2020,'' said the City of Unalaska in a press release on Friday. ''To be clear, local businesses that were closed because of state or local orders may not open today because of the authority of the local order. The City Council will, at their meeting on April 28, discuss whether or not to continue or modify local orders.'' 


If councilors modify local orders and choose to adopt Dunleavy's Health Mandate 016: Reopen Alaska Responsibly Plan, local restaurants will once again be allowed to serve patrons as dine-in guests. However, that dining experience will likely look far different from that which preceded recently mandated closures.


Upon entering a restaurant during this phase of the gradual reopening, patrons will likely be met with uncanny impressions, as the restaurants they once knew take on an unfamiliar sterility, if not a sci-fi quality. Signs on the doors will warn anyone who displays symptoms of coronavirus not to enter the building, employees will be wearing masks, utensils will likely be disposable, and unless requested, your side of tartar won't be served in a stainless steel condiment cup, but will be squeezed out of a glossy, single-use packet. They will be the same restaurants and staff patrons know and love, but as if they've collected residue from a strange dream amidst their resurgence.


Under Dunleavy's health mandate, walk-ins are prohibited, social distancing must be maintained, volume must be kept at 25 percent capacity, tables must be positioned 10 feet apart when seating non-household members, and sanitizer must be provided at tables or upon entering the business. These are just a few of the requirements listed in the mandate.


For many restaurant owners and managers, the transition back into serving the public remains an ambiguous and unnerving endeavor. Lisa Tran remains leery of some of the grey areas she foresees in this initial phase of the reopening. The Airport Restaurant is taking this time to mull over the new regulations and get a better understanding of what is required of local food service businesses during this preliminary phase.


And for Richardson, who plans to lead his staff in reopening the Grand, Chart Room, Margaret Bay Cafe, Harbor Sushi, and Harbor View Bar and Grill—all restaurants which reside under UniSea's ownership—this is not a task to be taken lightly.


''There's a lot of restlessness and a desire to go out,'' said Richardson. ''But we need to have a new sense of how to behave out in public now. I don't think it's about fear. I think it's about risk management, being smart, not taking chances, and keeping everybody safe.''


Richardson's concerns are pertinent. Both restaurant management and patrons will have to readjust their public dining practices. It will likely be a complicated process of revising old behaviors, while learning new public etiquette in these familiar yet newly estranged places.


Amelia's Restaurant, the Airport Restaurant, and the Norwegian Rat Saloon—while managers and owners are considering resuming dine-in services—have not committed to reopening for the time being.


In spite of their many weighty financial anxieties and the uncertainties regarding the gradual reopening, several businesses are finding support and comfort through the community. Many business owners are even taking the time to pay that compassion back by reaching out to support the community in uniquely thoughtful ways.


''As a family, we've talked about all the other people who are out there who may be struggling,'' said Tran. ''And if there is anyone who is struggling, in terms of food, we're more than happy to accommodate those people because we're all in this together.''


Tran's sentiments are echoed by the Norwegian Rat's efforts to supply those in need with free face masks made from Crown Royal bags. The managers and owners expressed gratitude to the community and the support they've provided during this trying time.


Now, as gears and practices once again start shifting, Richardson reminds everyone to be patient, thoughtful, and not to forget about reservations.


''When we do open up, we ask that everybody be respectful and kind, and everyone will get a chance to sit down. Please make a reservation. No walk-ins accepted,'' he said.


If the Unalaska City Council adopts Gov. Mike Dunleavy's statewide mandate at its meeting on April 28, local businesses will be open to dine-in service the following hours: the Grand will be open for breakfast and lunch Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Chart Room will open for dinner from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Sunday. Harbor View Bar and Grill will open at noon and close at 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, while closing at 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Harbor Sushi will open at 5 p.m. all week and close at 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Margaret Bay Cafe will open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.


The Airport Restaurant is currently open from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day for takeout. Similarly, the Norwegian Rat Saloon opens at noon every day and takes their last to-go order at 9:45 p.m. Amelia's Restaurant is open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day for takeout as well. Willow Bean Coffee is open to drive-thru service Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday through Sunday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m—however, hours may vary.


Most of the above restaurants are currently open to takeout service. They request patrons call ahead.

Hailing from Southwest Washington, Maggie moved to Unalaska in 2019. She's dabbled in independent print journalism in Oregon and completed her Master of Arts in English Studies at Western Washington University — where she also taught Rhetoric and Composition courses.
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