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Alaska Restaurant Owner: Reopening Far From Profitable, But Still Worth It

In Alaska, some restaurants are easing their way back into the business of serving food to dine-in customers.

Alaska has the lowest number of confirmed cases of coronavirusin the 50 states, and on April 21, Gov. Mike Dunleavy unveiled the first phase of reopening the state's economy. It allowed some businesses, including restaurants, to reopen under new safety guidelines, beginning April 24.

Those guidelines include allowing only 25% customer capacity, sanitizing surfaces at least every hour, and requiring servers to wear masks at all times.

Matt Tomter of Matanuska Brewing Company and his staff decided they were ready to invite diners back into three of their four restaurant and brewery locations in the Anchorage area. (Tomter said the fourth restaurant is too small a space to implement required social distancing and other safety measures.)

"It's been a challenge," he tells All Things Considered. "There's a significant amount of work that goes into meeting all the guidelines and dealing with people's fears."

But these fears have not kept customers away: Tomter says the three restaurants have hit the 25% maximum capacity during the week their dining rooms have been open. He hopes the ceiling will be lifted to 50% capacity at the end of this week.

Here are excerpts from the interview.

Three of your four brewery and restaurant locations have been open a week. How is it going?

The real challenge, of course, is 25%. That doesn't constitute a profitable situation. But, we have a big takeout program going right now and a big delivery program going right now. So the three of them together, it's worth doing for us.

Do you have servers touching the plates? How does it work?

Everything we're using is disposable, other than the plates. I mean, you can't cut on a paper plate. ... Servers are in gloves and masks. Most of the customers are encouraged to wear a mask on the way in. But you can't sit there and eat and drink with them on. So, most people don't come in with those on.

Do you think there's any advantage to doing this in Alaska, where people are more used to being spread out than they are in a lot of parts of the country?

We're not New York City. ... The reason Alaska is able to open right now is we are naturally socially distanced. We're way up here, and there's not a lot of planes coming in. So it's just basically Alaskans right now trying to get through it. And we just didn't get a big hit with the virus at the beginning.

How about your employees? Was anybody reluctant to come back? Unemployment is maybe a steadier paycheck these days.

We've got the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program]. We're paying people more than we normally would in order to get people to come back. If they want to work and they feel comfortable doing it, they're welcome back. If they don't, we're just letting people ride it out.

It sounds like it certainly does not feel normal, but does it feel good to be back?

Well, I mean, sitting down and having a beer and watching last year's sports, there's something to that. ...

The overwhelming amount of folks that are coming in are just relieved to be able to sit down and order a beer and get a burger and just enjoy not being at their house.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.