Juneau bars, breweries shutter after outbreak

City officials urge adherence to health guidelines, testing when appropriate

Juneau officials are urging members of the public to take the coronavirus pandemic and health precautions seriously after an outbreak at a social event led some of the city’s bars to shut their doors.

Several bars were closed Wednesday, and the City and Borough of Juneau reported 19 COVID-19 cases in a single day Tuesday, adding to increased case numbers reported over the weekend. Several of the positive tests came from people working in bars, the city said in a news release encouraging bar patrons to monitor themselves for coronavirus symptoms and to seek testing if they’re showing symptoms.

Anyone who socialized in any Juneau bar or bar setting, even at a restaurant, should seek testing, said Mila Cosgrove, head of the city’s Emergency Operations Center, adding health officials wanted to cast as wide a net as possible with testing.

The outbreak can be traced back to “a large social event that took place at the end of August,” which was attended by a number of people who work in bars. Evan Wood, co-owner of Devil’s Club Brewing Co., said his business shut its doors after one employee tested positive even without showing any symptoms.

That employee had been in close contact with someone who tested positive, Wood said, and sought testing despite being asymptomatic. When their test came back positive, Devil’s Club closed and all its employees have been tested, Wood said, but they’re still waiting on results.

Only one employee’s test results have been returned Wood said, which came back negative.

“We have a pretty conservative internal policy with regards to mitigation,” Wood said. “We want to make sure our customers feel great, we are doing absolutely everything in our power so we can minimize risk so we can remain open.”

When the brewery will reopen depends on the test results, he said, but the one negative test had him hopeful.

“As soon as we have enough people who can run the business test negative, we’ll reopen,” Wood said.

The Narrows owner Jared Curé expressed frustration with the city and his employees’ ability to receive testing. One employee was told she couldn’t receive a test because she was asymptomatic and was told to quarantine instead, he said.

“The lack of testing and the ability to get employees tested is costing the small business community,” he said. “If bars are the worst offenders, why aren’t these workers who are on the front lines (getting prioritized for testing)?”

[City recommends bar patrons get tested for the coronavirus]

Closing his business or operating at reduced capacity is costing him money, Curé said, and he wanted to reopen his business as soon as safely possible.

“A couple of my bartenders have paperwork from the city,” Curé said, speaking from out of state. “I get back tomorrow and I’m going to feel out the situation. I don’t want to stay closed forever, it costs me a lot of money. I do it out of the caution for the customer.”

The city is advising anyone who socialized at a Juneau bar between Aug. 24 and Sept. 7 get tested for COVID-19 regardless of whether they have symptoms, according to the news release. It defined socializing as being in a bar for more than 15 minutes, being near nonhousehold members, not always wearing a mask and being near people who were not wearing masks.

Those getting tested won’t necessarily be asked to quarantine while they await their results, Cosgrove said in an interview Wednesday. Only those who have been contacted by public health officials as having been in close contact with a COVID-19-positive person would be asked to quarantine, she said.

“The intent is not to have people isolate, it is to have people get tested,” Cosgrove said. “Testing is the responsible thing to do at this point, people can be asymptomatic and COVID-positive, we want to get people tested and get (COVID-positive) folks isolated.”

City health officials are concerned those who regularly socialize in bars would move beyond the bars where staff have been tested, Cosgrove said. The city did not want to release names of specific businesses, but Cosgrove said in an email that the city does know COVID positive people have socialized in and around a number of different bars over the last two week period.

Wednesday afternoon, the city’s coronavirus data hub showed three new cases and a total of 37 active cases in Juneau, and three people hospitalized for COVID-19 at Bartlett Regional Hospital. The state reported 66 new cases, all but one of which are residents. They bring the state’s active total to 3,717 and 37 people hospitalized statewide. There may be discrepancies between the state’s data website and the city’s because CBJ updates its own site more frequently than it reports to the state.

The city’s testing hotline was in high demand, Cosgrove said, and the drive-thru testing site at the Hagevig Regional Fire Training Center in the Mendenhall Valley was booked with appointments for the next two days. City officials are considering establishing another drive-thru site to facilitate more testing.

City testing supplies are in good stock, she said, and local officials will reach out to the state to have those stocks replenished.

Cosgrove encouraged members of the public to take health precautions seriously, particularly limiting exposure to people outside a small social bubble.

“We want to encourage people to take (health guidelines) seriously. Keep your social bubble small. Work to keep your exposure to people outside your family members small,” she said. “Remember, if you’re sitting where you’re eating or drinking with no mask and everyone around you is eating and drinking with no mask, that’s running the risk of exposure.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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