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‘Non-Essential’ Businesses in Nome Adjust to Coronavirus, Deciding When to Re-Open

A telephoto view of Nome’s Front Street on a cloudy afternoon.

Just like in many other places across the country, some businesses in Nome were deemed “non-essential” and are waiting to go back to work. Some of them will soon be able to resume operations, but with modifications.

KNOM looks at what life has been like for some of Nome’s non-essential businesses and their workers:

Michael Burnett works as a massage therapist at Bering Wellness in Nome. Shortly before Governor Mike Dunleavy deemed massage as a non-essential service, Burnett had decided to temporarily close his practice for the safety of himself and his clients.

“I was under the impression, maybe a couple of weeks. So to me it was like a nice mini-vacation in my head. But then it became a mandate.”

Once the mandate to stop massage therapy in Alaska took effect on March 24th, Burnett found himself in an awkward position. Would he look for work outside of his profession only to quit when the mandate was lifted? Or would he file for unemployment? He ultimately decided to file for unemployment, a process which took him about two weeks due to system overload.

“I’m fortunate enough,” Burnett admits. “My wife got to continue working, because she works at the hospital. She’s an essential employee. If I got it, great! If not, I would find other means.”  

The service industry has been hit especially hard. While restaurants were allowed to continue operating with take-out service only, bars have been completely closed since March 18th.

That means Nome’s bartenders like Rose Reale, who mixed drinks at the Board of Trade Saloon, have had to find other options for work. Reale counts herself lucky that she had enough savings to be able to budget for missing a few weeks of work.

“I did not apply for unemployment. I just knew it was going to be inundated.”

Reale also has a skill-set that’s useful during a pandemic. She is trained as a medical provider (EMT) with the Nome Volunteer Ambulance Department and was hired part-time by the City of Nome to use those life-saving skills. So now, instead of serving a variety of drinks, Reale checks travel permits for visitors coming into Nome and performs wellness checks if a person is suspected to be ill.

The local closures and COVID-19 restrictions took effect during a time when Nome is normally preparing for one of its biggest events of the year: the Iditarod Sled Dog Race.

Every March, the population increases significantly with visitors from around the world coming into Nome to see the Iditarod winner cross under the burled arch. It can be a huge source of income for many of Nome’s small business owners and seasonal tour operators. One small business vendor told Kawerak, in an anonymous comment on a public survey, that they were supposed to be open during Iditarod week and had 80% of their bookings cancel, leaving that vendor unable to pay their bills. These comments were part of the raw initial data from a COVID-19 Economic Impact Survey for the Bering Strait Region and conducted by Kawerak. Final survey results are not available yet.

Burnett said he had to cancel many bookings for massages during the Iditarod time as well. But for at least for Reale, who works nights as a bartender, the Iditarod is something she’s been financially depending on less and less every year.

“We’re seeing less and less people travel in specifically for Iditarod. We’re seeing less foot-traffic in town and also in bars. That was sad and I was kind of already planning for that to be the case.” 

The latest available data from the Department of Labor shows that Nome’s number of unemployed for March is actually down compared to the previous month, and also to March of 2019. Nome doesn’t have an economy that is heavily dependent on non-essential businesses like restaurants or retail stores but that doesn’t mean that residents aren’t feeling financial stress from the coronavirus pandemic.

Brandon Walker is a cook at the Bering Sea Restaurant in Nome. He works with his brother Peter Lee who is also the manager.

“All of our waitresses and bartenders, they’ve all been laid off. Every other cook has been laid off it’s just Peter and I working. It’s pretty tough. It’s pretty depressing too honestly. I miss all the people.”

– Brandon Walker

Walker says the plan is to hire most of those people back when they can. He says he knows some of them have been trying to get money by babysitting and other odd jobs but he thinks most have been filing for unemployment. Over 70 percent of the small businesses in the region who were surveyed by Kawerak have made staff reductions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some workers, like Michael Burnett, see there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Massage therapy businesses are allowed by state mandate to open up today, April 24th, with some restrictions. But Burnett says Bering Wellness is choosing to be even more conservative.

“We actually are going to hold off until May 1st because we just had our first case- what, a week ago? Two weeks ago? So we still want to play it safe and this can all change. If things pick up and get worse, we just won’t open up.”

It’s an emotional boost for Burnett’s spirits who says he has been missing doing the thing that he loves and looks forward to helping people who’ve told him that the stress of the pandemic is causing them tension and sore muscles.

Governor Dunleavy’s recent mandate allows restaurants to begin to re-open to dine-in customers today, if they wish. But their capacity will be strictly limited 25 people or fewer at a time and reservation only. Only members of the same household may sit together.

As of this report, only the Polar Café had firm plans to be taking dine-in customers this weekend. But some said they could potentially begin to re-open next week.

That same mandate also allows hairdressers and retail stores to re-open Friday, April 24th, but also with regulations. Other businesses like bars and movie theaters will have to wait longer before they can get back to work.

Image at top: Nome’s main thoroughfare, Front Street, May 2013. Photo: David Dodman, used with permission.

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