Van's Dive Bar on the front lines against Berkowitz's EO-15
On Friday, July 31, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz dropped what many felt to be a bomb on Anchorage's service industry. Dubbed a "Four Week Reset," Executive Order 15 called for the closure of bars, nightclubs, bingo halls, and theaters beginning on Monday, August 3 — just two days after the order was announced. To some bar owners, the order felt like another targeted attack by the mayor, who just a month earlier drew the ire of many by releasing the names of businesses that had had COVID-19 exposures.
"When we shut down the first time, I thought, 'OK, they know what they are doing, and we need to flatten the curve.' Then when things opened up again, I think we handled the protocols constantly changing really well. We were doing everything we were supposed to be doing, and so EO15 really shocked me," says Van's Dive Bar co-owner Nikki Hale. "I honestly thought we were doing everything right to keep people safe."
Hale's shock soon turned into a rallying cry for Anchorage's hard-hit small businesses.
As commuters on the Glenn arrived in Anchorage on the first day of the order, they were greeted by the bar's newly updated sign: "Berkowitz is a dick tator. Hell yeah, brother!"
With 36 black vinyl letters on their trademark sign, Van's Dive Bar brought the plight of Anchorage small business owners to the forefront. Hours later, a ruffled Berkowitz insisted the message be changed. Unfortunately for him, images of the sign had already gone viral across the U.S.
"I feel like [the Municipality of Anchorage] did this with no thought of the people who were losing their jobs. We just started feeling like things were starting to stabilize a little bit, and then they do this to us again? It's not like they didn't know they were going to do it, and they had time to come up with a backup plan and safety net for the people they were displacing," explains Van's Dive Bar bartender Emily Green.
Green's point is well taken. In April, the municipality received over $150 million in CARES Act funding, but as of mid-August, that money had yet to reach the hands of furloughed workers. Instead, Berkowitz proposed a plan to use the funds for the purchase of three buildings for homeless services. The proposal was immediately met by outrage as protesters called into question the appropriateness of spending CARES Act funds on the purchase of buildings to address a problem that existed prior to the arrival of COVID-19.
"They aren't thinking about the trickle down effect of doing what they're doing without a plan in place," says Van's Dive Bar bartender Conan Dolezal. "If you think about bars when our doors close, we lose our jobs, Anchorage musicians lose income, and then neither of us can pay rent. Then you have the vendors that lose income because we don't need goods. Everyone is going to suffer."
Dolezal, who also owns a band practice space in Ship Creek is on the precipice of losing his side-business because bands can't afford to rent the space.
"I can't front rent on the building because the last shutdown drained my finances,” says Dolezal. “Honestly, if [Van's Dive Bar owner, Van Hale] hadn't been making meals for the staff, there would have been a lot of days I wouldn't have eaten."
Dolezal isn't the only one worried about losing his business. Van's Dive Bar co-owners Van and Nikki Hale have had to dig into their savings to keep the bar.
"[Van and I] were dipping into our own pockets to pay vendors and the rent. Van is 70-something, and at some point you realize that you can't keep taking money out of your own pockets," says Nikki Hale.
Of course, not all of the business' expenses were being paid by the Hales. A small PPP loan, they say, enabled the couple to pay rent and utilities while their employees relied on unemployment benefits.
"Applying for unemployment became a full-time job. You'd have to call the office over and over again to check your status, and it was exhausting,” says Green. “I'm grateful for the help, I think we all are, but we'd rather be working."
Some might contend that Van's staff could go out and find other work, but Green insists that service workers should not be forced to change their chosen professions.
"At the end of the day, why should I have to upend my life and change my career trajectory after following the rules? As a bar, we went above and beyond and did everything right, but we're still getting the shaft," explains Green.
Before working at Van's Dive Bar, Dolezal worked in IT, and Green had a high-paying health and safety job.
"It's not like they couldn't go out there and find something, but this is the industry they have chosen, and there aren't positions in their profession open. You can go to Craigslist and find pages of openings for Door Dash drivers, but why should my staff be forced to be around dozens of strangers a night and increase their chances of exposure to COVID just so they can keep their profession," asks Nikki Hale.
Hale's question is one in succession about the fairness of EO15. While Anchorage's bars have been forced to remain closed, alcohol-serving restaurants and breweries have been allowed to open for takeout and outside dining. The loophole had places like 49th State Brewing Company and Crush Bistro hustling to set up tents and outdoor dining options. With the support of the Anchorage Downtown Partnership and the municipality, some restaurants were also allowed to close sections of downtown streets to promote foot traffic and sales. No bars have been permitted to set up outdoor drinking pavilions.
"I guess there is something magical about food that keeps the COVID away," jokes Van's Dive Bar bartender Garrett Hermanson.
With six days left in the "reset," the number of COVID cases has only dropped marginally. According to the Department of Health and Social Services' COVID dashboard, there were 1,245 confirmed cases in Anchorage residents in July. By comparison, there have been 970 causes in Anchorage in the first 26 days of August. If Anchorage averages 45 news cases a day through August 31, the numbers for July and August will be precisely the same.
As Alaska heads into cold and flu season, Green is worried that the closure will be extended.
"Cold and flu season happens every year, and we know it's going to happen again this year. So, what happens then? We can't keep surviving without a plan," says Green.
But financial security is only part of the equation.
"It honestly feels like an emotional whipsaw. You start getting back to normal, and then everything is ripped away again. It's not good for your mental health," says Van's Dive Bar bartender Maggie Searles.
The health and well-being of the Van's Dive Bar staff and their patrons are precarious in the best of times, so the added stressors of repeated shutdowns have taken their toll.
"We're a cornerstone for the fringe community that don't have a place to call their own," says Green. "This second shutdown isn't just affecting us as staff, it's affecting the people we care about. There are people we serve that literally have nowhere safe to go, and we have become like a community center for the disenfranchised."
"I can't count how many times I've walked in [the bar] just wanting to burn the world down, and then I play a set at the open mic or sit at the bar, and suddenly things start to feel better. Now I don't have that, and it's been hard," adds Hermanson. "This isn't just a bar, it's a family, and it's a home."