With the flip of a door placard from “closed” to “open” or the tug of a chain turning on a blinking neon light, Fairbanks restaurants returned to full capacity dining Friday, more than two months after a state mandate halted dine-in service across Alaska in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For guests long cooped up at home because of social distancing or self-isolating, it was a time to celebrate — grabbing a bite to eat from a favorite local spot or enjoying a drink on a deck overlooking the Chena River.

“It’s social interaction, getting out, not having to cook your own food, having a drink with friends,” said Dina Barkhuff, who was having lunch with her daughter, Ava, 9, and friend, Caitlin Taylor, upstairs on the deck at Salty’s On 2nd in downtown Fairbanks. “We’re very happy to be back and supporting our local businesses.”

That support didn’t go unnoticed. As afternoon diners placed their orders or packed up take-home containers with leftovers, restaurant owners were quick to express thanks for both patrons and opening fully.

“It feels good, it does,” said Salty’s On 2nd co-owner Monica Kissinger. “I’m happy to be open and feel like we’re doing everything we need to do to follow the rules and to continue with a lot of stuff, like not overseating our restaurant and making sure everything is clean. We’re a new business, so we’re excited about putting ourselves out there to introduce us.”

On March 18, a state mandate closed restaurants to in-house seating, limiting them to delivery or pickup options only. Some restaurants opted to do that while others closed either temporarily or permanently. On April 24, the state eased dining restrictions, allowing restaurants to operate at 25% capacity with mandated social distancing between tables and employees wearing face masks, among other safeguards. On May 8, the state upped the capacity limits to 50%. Now, with full service restored, restaurant owners are hoping guests return.

“We are looking forward to be able to be open again. The takeout time brought a lot of challenges for our restaurant,” said Vanessa Stebbins, Salty’s On 2nd’s co-owner. “We feel like the mandates before were needed but we’ve proven, as Alaskans, we can be responsible and have what it takes to run our community and stay open and allow our businesses to thrive.”

At Bobby’s Downtown, sibling owners Rena and Bobby Nikolaides are grateful to be open, but Rena said the concern is if the dining public is ready to return. The Nikolaideses are keeping social distancing in place at Bobby’s Downtown — seating guests at every other table — and are using cardboard cutouts of celebrities to fill empty seats.

“Our hope is people start coming out and see how we’re doing things,” she said. “We want want them to know we are keeping that distancing, so we will have a table between them. I think that gives a peace of mind — but we’re not going to open at full capacity yet.”

At Pike’s Landing, that distancing is in effect, too, as tables on the deck are already spaced 6 feet from each other, said Elizabeth Young, a Pike’s supervisor. But, she added, there are still measures in place like wiping down menus and frequent hand-washing as well as encouraging guests to keep groups small.

“Make responsible choices to come out in groups of three or with close family — not people you aren’t usually around,” she said. “Our locals have really come out to support us. We’re going to live or die by our local support this year.”

Two of those locals on Pike’s deck Friday were Candace Ramsarran and her mom, Cathy Keyes. The two were out celebrating a new job Ramsarran landed, which called for an order of beer-battered halibut. It was the first time either of them have been out to a restaurant since the shutdown started March 18.

“My mom was just telling me, ‘I just want to sit down and be out to dinner and I just miss being outside,’ and I was like we’re going to the deck at Pike’s,” Ramsarran said.

Her mom added, “Hopefully, everybody in Fairbanks will be back to normal. I’m really excited for that.”

Miguel Montes De Oca, owner and chef at Miguel’s Authentic Mexican Cuisine, expressed the same outlook — relief to be open punctuated with a sense of caution.

“We’re at about 70% (seating), and we don’t have all our staff back,” he said. “That’s to do better customer service, a better job. It’s better to do that than open at 100% and have customers upset. That’s not a good thing.”

Yolanda Casillas, manager of Taco Azteca/Mayan Palace, expressed excitement about being back open and said she was thankful for her customer base but that she realizes it will be long process.

“We did baby steps like everybody else, following the rules — 25%, 50%, and now 100%,” she said. “We keep taking precautions but we’re open. We’re just trying to survive.”

Contact Features Editor Gary Black at 459-7504 or at twitter.com/FDNMfeatures.

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