GUEST COMMENTARY: Alaska’s restaurant and hospitality industry needs help from the governor now

At its quarterly meeting on March 31 and April 1, and as reported by the Anchorage Daily News, the Alaska Alcoholic Beverage Control Board was faced with the decision to ease alcohol sale rules during the coronavirus pandemic crisis and to temporarily allow to-go alcohol sales.

In a recent poll taken on March 23, Alaska President and CEO of CHARR Sarah Oates (Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association) told the ABC board that 7 percent of Alaska’s restaurants had permanently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic and never to re-open. By March 30, that number had doubled to 14 percent.

Fourteen percent of Alaska’s restaurants had permanently closed their doors due to the economic devastation. Oates suggested that number could double again in a week if we fail to take immediate remedial action. Industry attorney Jessica Brown also expressed concern that if no immediate relief came for the industry, hundreds to thousands of jobs could be lost.

On April 1, the ABC board considered postponing our decision by a week to allow more time to think it over, but ultimately decided to immediately respond and unanimously approved to-go sales of factory-sealed beer and wine from any bar or restaurant currently licensed to sell such products on premises, with or without food.

The board also unanimously voted to allow curbside pickup of products from liquor stores and other manufacturers, such as breweries.

The ABC board recognized the magnitude of the economic loss the hospitality/restaurant industry faces and voted to send an advisory opinion to the governor requesting he allow such to-go sales in the state of Alaska during the coronavirus pandemic. The governor has the authority to approve or deny our emergency request, but to date, no word has been heard from the governor or from his administration.

Allowing to-go orders during this pandemic crisis makes sense if we are to be consistent in our “hunker-down” message. This temporary allowance would be a way to support local businesses and hopefully keep them from collapsing, while taking further steps to encourage people to stay home and avoid crowding in stores.

We’ve all heard in the news we may be facing the worst economic collapse since the Great Recession in 2007. If we don’t immediately act to try and help the restaurants and others in the alcohol industry, what restaurants might be left for us to enjoy once we come out of quarantine?

Someone once said, “Silence screams a message, just as doing nothing is an act. What we do is who we are.” I wonder, what message is the governor sending?

I fully appreciate that alcohol needs to be appropriately regulated and, even during a national emergency, all important standards must be maintained. Consequently, the governor was given very specific legal information to help make this decision in confidence. The governor has at his fingertips the legal language necessary to enable the industry to conduct these activities — language that was drafted by his own team of assistant attorneys general in partnership with industry experts.

With the possibility that this might save even a few small businesses from going under completely, and the likelihood that it will help prevent the spread of the virus, the governor should take this final small step and concur with the ABC board’s advisory votes.

The fact is, 44 other states in the United States have temporarily eased alcohol restrictions to help salvage the industry during this crisis. Alaska is one of only 6 states that remain silent and perhaps even complicit in the downfall of our second largest industry – hospitality.

It’s hard to know what kind of positive economic impact this will have on the industry, but perhaps it will help just enough to keep several more businesses afloat during this time. Any hope and assistance we can give to these small businesses during this crisis is not only welcomed but morally warranted. Action is needed now.

As a small business owner who was born and raised in this amazing state, I have always believed in fighting for what’s best for Alaskans and Alaskan businesses. I’m here serving as the appointed public member on the ABC board doing my best to support this important industry and the public’s best interest. I am honored to serve as your representative.

Sara Erickson is a member of the Alcohol Control Board. The opinions expressed here are solely her own and do not express the views of the board.

04/08/2020 - 8:51am