The waiting room at Custom Cuts II in the Jordan Creek Mall sits empty on Aug. 19. Beginning at 5 p.m. Friday, Aug. 20, new citywide COVID-19 mitigation measures mean that all personal services businesses must operate by appointment only and close all waiting areas. (Dana Zigmund / Juneau Empire)

Local business owners prepare to pivot

City announces increasing risk level and mitigation measures.

With COVID-19 case counts on the rise locally and statewide, more stringent mitigation measures will soon go into effect for the City and Borough of Juneau, the city announced Wednesday evening.

The measures, which are effective as of 5 p.m. Friday, Aug. 20, include:

— Continued use of masks in public indoor areas, wearing masks in public outdoor areas where distancing can’t be maintained and keeping a social bubble contained to family members.

— A 20-person limit for indoor gatherings with masks required, no limit if all people are vaccinated and 6 feet of distancing recommended for outdoor gatherings;

— Personal services by appointment only and no waiting areas;

— Bars and restaurants are limited to 50% capacity, must maintain 6 feet of distance between patrons, maintain a patron list and close at 11 p.m.;

— Gyms are also limited to 50% capacity, cannot host group activities and must limit indoor classes to only fully vaccinated people.

“The situation in town is very serious,” said Mila Cosgrove, incident commander for the CBJ Emergency Operations Center. “Jueau has a really high vaccination rate and COVID threw us a curveball.”

In a Thursday morning phone interview, Cosgrove said that although the city has no official enforcement mechanism to compel residents and businesses to follow the revised guidelines, she’s confident that most will.

“Most people try to do the right thing as they understand the right thing,” she said. “The only thing we can really do is lay out what is going on as clearly as we can and hope people understand how to keep the community safe.”

Cosgrove said that the majority of business owners have been “very compliant” and that the city is trying to strike the balance that lets schools remain open, keeps the economy vital and protects public health.

Teachers share excitement about return to classrooms

Local bar owners react

At the Red Dog Saloon downtown, owner Eric Forst said that he was “still evaluating the changes,” but that the bar had been operating at a reduced capacity for several months and often closes around 11 p.m. — the closing time required by the new measures.

“We are going to take the day and have some discussions with the city and figure out what it means,” Forst said.

He said that staff safety and guest experience are at the forefront of his mind.

“We are evaluating the changes to determine the best course of action and how we can integrate them into our operations,” he said. “We are working hard every day to keep everyone healthy and operate a thriving business.”

Jared Curé, who owns downtown bars The Narrows and The Vikingwhich is currently closed for construction said that he understands the city is in a tough spot, but he is frustrated by the changing mitigation measures, especially the forced earlier closing times.

Curé said that he normally closes at 1 a.m. on weekdays and 3 a.m. on the weekends and that the 11 p.m. closure time is tough.

“Does COVID come out after 11? Where is the data behind this? What are we trying to achieve?” he asked, noting that the duration of customer visits is the key to making money in the bar business. He said people in the bar at 11 p.m. are likely to still be there at 1 a.m.

“It’s about people over the duration. You can only serve so many drinks per hour,” he said.

He predicted that the changing community alert level will affect his business.

“Every time the city sets off one of these alarms, people stop coming out,” he said.

Curé said that when the city moved the overall community risk level to modified Level 3, his business dropped by 40% overnight. He predicts that with the new restrictions on operating hours, his business will be down by 60%.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s happening now. June, July and August help us get through winter,” he said.

Curé said that he is interested in exploring an idea with the city that would allow bars to be exempt from the mitigation rules if they agreed to only serve fully vaccinated customers.

Cosgrove said the city is looking at the option.

“The devil is in the details,” she said.

Other businesses prepare to pivot

At Donna’s Family restaurant near the airport, owner Timos Giamakidis said that they are preparing to remove tables from the dining room.

“We will have to go to 50%. We are now at 75%. Any time someone takes out some customers, it’s a big deal,” Giamakidis said.

Giamakidis said that he’s seen brisk business over the last two months and that his staff is preparing to be even more careful in light of the new community alert level.

“The staff is wearing masks. Some customers come in without them. It’s a battle,” he said.

Curé also owns the Emporium Mall downtown and said that businesses there are suffering as well.

“I hear lots of different perspectives,” Curé said, noting that several of the mall’s occupants are working hard to keep business going.

“It’s the uncertainty about next year or this winter. It’s a challenge for people to scrape out of this,” he said.

Sally Burnham, who owns Custom Cuts II in the Jordan Creek Center said that she’s not worried about the increasing cases or the new mitigation measures.

“I sanitize. Most people wear a mask,” she said.

Burnham said that when a family of five comes in for haircuts, some family members need to wait in the hall due to prohibitions on waiting room use at personal service businesses. She said others just space themselves out in her waiting area.

Local gyms consider options

At the Southeast Alaska Gymnastics Academy, head coach and manager Alexis Howard said that she had just made the decision to pause all gymnastics classes for the time being. A move that will reduce business by about 75%.

“The majority of the kids here are too young to be vaccinated and all of our kids come from different schools. It doesn’t feel safe to go forward,” she said.

Howard said she would revisit the decision at the end of next week.

“We have great families and parents have been really awesome,” she said.

Howard said the gymnastics team, which includes students who are older and more experienced, will continue to meet—at least for the time being.

Tommy Vrabec, manager of The Alaska Club declined to comment on how the change may affect local operations. However, the club’s online exercise schedule does say that reservations are required for group classes.

Julia Carver, owner of Pilates Body in South Douglas said that she had pivoted to offering online classes through her website, pilatesbodiesjuneau.com and that she plans to continue doing so.

However, she added that the last year of COVID-19 related restrictions has affected her business

“We used to have 8 classes a week,” she said.

Still, she sounded a positive note and encouraged Juneauites to stay active through the latest COVID-19 surge.

Health officials call for booster shots against COVID-19

Why the change

The new measures come with an increase in the overall community risk level. Previously, the city was operating at a modified Level 3 risk level, according to CBJ, but soaring numbers of cases fueled by the delta variant in the city and state mean COVID-19 Community Mitigation Strategies will be fully implemented. The city had been at the previous risk level since the end of July.

Slower contact tracing

As a result, of increased cases, Public Health is no longer able to adequately contact trace, the city said in a news release. Hospitals in Anchorage and Seattle are significantly restricted, limiting Bartlett Regional Hospital’s ability to medevac critical patients.

Bartlett Regional Hospital is not over patient capacity, according to the city, but it is contending with staffing shortages and nationwide healthcare supply chain issues that will make it difficult if hospitalizations increase. As of Wednesday evening, the city reported three patients with COVID-19 were hospitalized in Juneau.

The city reported 27 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday and a total of 186 active cases. The state reported 647 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday. The city reported 27 new cases and one death —the city’s eighth so far —on Thursday.

The person who died was a man in his 50s who died Wednesday afternoon in Bartlett Regional Hospital due to COVID-19, according to the city.

In a Thursday afternoon news release, the city said that for Aug. 18 and 19, the Juneau School District reported nine people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 and were infectious while in school – three at Auke Bay Elementary, one at Harborview Elementary, one at Sayeik: Gastineau Elementary, one at Sitʼ Eeti Shaanáx̱ Glacier Valley Elementary and three at Thunder Mountain High School. COVID-19 cases related to schools are posted on the district website as they are reported.

Testing available

City and state health officials continue to encourage people exhibiting symptoms —even mild ones —to get tested for COVID-19. Additionally, health officials maintain that free, easily accessible vaccines remain the best way to limit the spread of COVID-19.

People can register to be tested or vaccinated online through https://juneau.org/covid-19 or by calling (907)586-6000.

Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891. Ben Hohenstatt contributed reporting to this story.

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