Across Alaska: Pandemic recovery on the Kenai Peninsula
KENAI, Alaska (KTUU) - Karen Childers, a server at Louie’s Steak and Seafood for 10 years, was one of 47 people who lost her job at the restaurant last year due to the pandemic.
“I was laid off,” Childers said as she poured a bowl of soup for a customer sitting at nearby table during the lunchtime rush on May 18. As he waited, the diner held a cup of paper flowers for the other servers to grab as they worked the busy crowd.
“It was one of my favorite jobs,” Childers said. “I’ve had it for 10 years now. The owners are like family.”
The restaurant manager, Duane Bannock, said he laid everyone off the same day.
“It was lousy. It hurt us badly, one of the worst days of my professional life was laying off 47 staff members. That’s the bad news,” Bannock said. “The good news is one of the great days of my life was hiring 45 of them back.”
Bannock said as COVID-19 cases decrease, and restrictions are loosened, the restaurant business is bouncing back. The same can’t be said for the hotel, he said.
“The restaurant business, at least in Kenai, Alaska, has come back very, very well.” Bannock said. “The hotel business not so much. There is definitely a noticeable difference in the amount of hotel rooms we rent.”
The Kenai Peninsula Borough is hoping travelers will get the urge to visit Alaska’s playground this summer, which is famous for high-quality fishing, hiking and recreation.
In a January survey of 3,000 travelers from the United States, Canada and several other countries, American Express Travel found that 78% of respondents want to travel this year as a way to relieve stress from 2020.
“I think we’re gearing up for a great summer. Are things going to be different? Yes,” said Tim Dillon, executive director for the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District.
Dillon said a recent survey found that 70% of the businesses in the borough have five or fewer employees. He said most businesses in the borough survived because of CARES Act and the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
“That would account for approximately $198 million from the middle of last March to this past December,” Dillon said. “So around $200 million of that, if we didn’t have, we’d really would be in trouble.”
According to the state, back in November the borough had a large COVID-19 spike, with 144 new cases reported on Nov. 15 alone.
The Central Peninsula Hospital hit a peak of patients on Nov. 24 with 16 people, and it was forced to use a separate area of the hospital setup especially for anyone who tested positive for the virus.
“We were not overwhelmed to the point of considering transferring patients, however we were forced to surge into an area of the hospital that was set up in advance for the possibility of this occasion,” said Public Information Officer Bruce Richards in an email. “The surge area has eight beds. The hospital itself has 47 inpatient beds.”
As of Tuesday, 40% of borough residents age 12 and older are now fully vaccinated.
Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce said at the start of the pandemic, he did support restrictions on businesses, but now he says the virus can be managed using hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin and a Z-Pack.
White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said that all the “valid” scientific data shows hydroxychloroquine isn’t effective in treating Covid-19, which contradicts former President Donald Trump’s opinion of the drug.
Which part of the borough someone visits determines the pandemic restrictions. As a second-class borough, it does not have health powers and did not have the ability to enact a borough-wide mast mandate or restrictions similar to those that were in Anchorage.
Dillion said COVID-19 wasn’t the only problem the borough has managed recently, pointing to the wildfires in 2019 as another disaster that impacted people there.
Still, Dillon expects a busier year as the state continues to get the population vaccinated.
“I think we’re gearing up for a great summer,” he said.
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