Pandemic shutdowns take heavy toll on bars and restaurants
Bars and restaurants in Nome have been struggling since the beginning of the pandemic as they were ordered to shut down in spring and once they reopened, the risk of infection kept many away from public gathering places. Now, three weeks into the second mandated shutdown of all in-person drinking and dining, Nome’s bars and restaurants are struggling even more.
Pat Krier, who runs the Polar Cub restaurant and Polar Bar, said the shutdown has had a massive effect on his business. “It’s killed it,” he said. “The economy has died here in town. And there’s no relief in sight.” Business was already down before he had to close his doors, but for last few weeks his income has plummeted and isn’t nearly enough to cover regular operating costs.
He’s been trying to ramp up takeout and sell pull-tabs, but even pull-tab sales have fallen off over the last few weeks and case numbers in Nome skyrocket and people hunker down. “Nobody’s going out, everybody’s afraid,” he said.
Numerous other bar and restaurant owners shared similar sentiments. “I haven’t been able to sell anything” said Ron Locke, who owns Breakers Bar. His business has been completely shut down for the last two weeks, without any takeout.
“The ones that are really hurting are the people that work here,” he added.
Jang Ahn, who runs Husky Restaurant, has been able to hang on selling some takeout, but just barely. He said overall visitor numbers had been down around 20 percent compared to last year, forcing him to hire fewer staff. Ahn said he’s received some relief grants from the city to help him stay open, but that they weren’t enough to make up for the loss of business. “I hope this difficult time passes quickly for everybody,” he said.
Jim West Jr., owner of the Board of Trade Saloon, said he’s doing his best to stay open. He’s not selling alcohol, as per the City’s ordinance, but he’s selling pull tabs and letting in a maximum of 10 patrons at a time.
“We’re encouraging people to wear masks, and we’re encouraging social distancing,” he said. “Just the basics.” Since the Board of Trade is considerably larger than other bars and restaurants, keeping distant is more feasible.
“But traffic flow is considerably less than what it has been in the past,” he added.
Originally, he wanted to sell alcohol as a takeout option, which is allowed under the city mandate, but ran into problems with his insurance. “My insurance company would not let me do that, so I opted just to close the alcohol portion down,” he said.
West said he’s yet to have to lay off any staff in the most recent shutdown, but he’s been working with minimal staff since the start of the pandemic, and business hours have been reduced.
Revenue losses even before the most recent shutdown were heavy. City Manager Glenn Steckman said that over the course of the summer and early fall, tax data shows that restaurant sales were down 75 percent from the same time last year. Data from the last few months has yet to be compiled, but increased shutdowns suggest that recent losses could be even more severe.
Scot Henderson, Chair of the Board of the Nome Chamber of Commerce, said bars and restaurants have been “if not the most impacted industry, then one of the most impacted” by the pandemic.
He explained that the crisis facing food and drink businesses is two-fold. Not only are local Nomeites hesitant to go out and risk infection, but the pandemic also completely shut down the summer tourism season, which local bars and restaurants rely on as a major source of annual revenue. “This is a horrible time to be in the restaurant or bar business,” he said.
Henderson commended the city for allocating $1.5 million of its CARES funding to small businesses and economic relief, but said it still wasn’t enough.
“They’re really trying to get the money out to the folks who really need it,” he said. “But I suspect for the average restaurant owner, the amount that they’re getting from the City is not nearly enough to stay in business, if they only have that.”
He said one of his biggest concerns was how restaurants and bars would bounce back, even if they survived the worst of the shutdowns. Without savings and working capital, and with bills continuing to pile up, he fears that some businesses just wouldn’t be able to make it out of the hole.
He added that the most heavily impacted were restaurant and bar employees, many of whom have been out of work for months. “Many of those employees are already living paycheck to paycheck, and when a business gets shut down, or business gets curtailed like with takeout-only, they’re usually the first impacted,” he said.
The current shutdown is set to expire at midnight on December 13, after which bars and restaurants will be able to serve patrons in-house again. But with new COVID cases detected in Nome every day and the uncertainty if further relief is coming from the federal government, the hardship is far from over.
“The reality is, if this goes on much longer, I think we’re going to see more businesses close and be unable to reopen,” Henderson said.