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Unalaska Bars And Restaurants Struggle To Weather Storm As Pandemic Continues To Slow Business

Maggie Nelson/KUCB

As January comes to a close, Unalaska is rounding up the start of its busy winter fishing season. That's usually a bustling time for local bars and restaurants, with fishermen and industry workers filling bar stools at the Norwegian Rat Saloon or crowding the dance floor at Harbor View Bar and Grill.  

But with recent shutdowns at two of the island's processing plants due to COVID-19 outbreaks, fishermen stuck at their boats for travel quarantines and local "hunker down" orders, things are looking a lot quieter this year.

"[The difference] is night and day," said Brett Richardson, general manager of hospitality for the Grand Aleutian Hotel. "Normally, everybody's coming into town now — boats, if they haven't already started, they're getting ready to start gearing up. Pollock would already have started, so this is completely different. We're in uncharted waters, so to speak, and business is not anywhere near normal. Any business is good. But we're not at half of what we would normally be doing." 

The Grand, which is owned by UniSea, had to close its main restaurant, the Chart Room, last summer in the wake of the pandemic. The company also shuttered Margaret Bay Café, a restaurant that, according to Richardson, had been a popular local lunch spot for over 25 years.

While the city made exceptions to its public health orders to allow for limited dine-in services at bars and restaurants earlier this month, Daneen Looby, part owner of the Norwegian Rat Saloon, said that many of their customers are still choosing to stay home.

"We had a lot of fishermen and observers and Coast Guard and different [people] normally coming to the bar before the pandemic," Looby said. "And none of those guys are able to come now because they're protecting themselves. The fishing boats don't want [the coronavirus] on their boats, the Coast Guard doesn't want it on their boats, and so anybody that's really protecting themselves is not going to come to the bars or restaurants." 

Some restaurants in town have chosen to stick to takeout options only, despite the city's mandate that allows them to reopen at 35 percent capacity or 10 patrons, whichever is greater.

Vy Hyunh's parents own Pho Vy's Restaurant in downtown Unalaska. And at 35 percent capacity, Hyunh said they've decided it's not worth reopening to dine-in service. 

"That's not a lot of people because our restaurant's not that big," said Hyunh. "[My parents] wanted to open, but as of right now, I think they'd rather just keep it takeout until everything's better." 

While it may not be clear when bars and restaurants will be able to reopen to full capacity again, Looby has found some solace in the city's decision to define a concrete limited capacity for dining services. She said the constant closing and reopening over the past couple months caused a lot of stress and wasted resources.

"We have to order stuff off the island and have it shipped here, so our lead time is about three weeks," said Looby. "And so when you place an order, expecting to be open [for dine-in service], and then you get shut down, you have this inventory coming in that you can't use. And of course, it goes bad, depending on what it is." 

The Rat's biggest inventory loss was in alcohol, according to Looby. She said they lost about $30,000 worth of alcohol and food inventory combined, just in the month of December.

Looby and Richardson agree that it won't be easy to weather this storm financially. According to Richardson, the CARES Act aid they received through the city has been a substantial help, but because the Grand's bars and restaurants are considered part of UniSea, they don't qualify for federal funding. 

Looby echoed Richardson's appreciation for the city's contribution of CARES funding.

"The city CARES money is what really saved us as far as the operating expenses," said Looby. "We had to pay a lot of taxes — there's sales tax and you have property tax. So when that CARES money came out last summer, it couldn't have been better timing."

But even with the city's CARES Act funds and federal aid, Looby said the Rat has burned through about three quarters of its savings. She said the bar is waiting on another round of federal funding through the Paycheck Protection Program, but with operating costs, it's likely that aid will only help cover about one month of expenses.

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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