Reme Privett runs Rayme’s Bar on Front Street in Wrangell. (June Leffler/ KSTK)

As the state eases COVID-19 restrictions and seeks to reopen the economy, many places in Wrangell have been cautious about throwing open their doors to customers. That goes for hairdressers, restaurants, and churches which so far have hesitated to take advantage of the relaxed rules. But bars were a different story. Wrangell’s watering holes did not hesitate to welcome back patrons.

For the first time since mid-March, Alaska bars had the option last weekend to reopen. Albeit with some restrictions. Last Friday morning Totem Bar owner Aaron Powell was spacing out bar stools and tables in anticipation for his first customers in almost two months. A row of tables is completely blocked off. That’s because he can only operate at 25 percent or less capacity.

“We’re gonna cap it right now at 22, just for the way the spacing is with the seating and the tables,” Powell says.

It’s the same story at Rayme’s Bar — where the sun is shining into a dim empty bar before opening hours.  More than a dozen stools are stacked in the corner — off-limits due to COVID-19 restrictions. 

Owner Reme Privett says the state isn’t allowing him to take any chances.

“We have to bleach every hour, on the hour, every surface. Every table, every chair. Where your arm is, as soon as you leave, I will have to bleach that area down,” he says.

Both bar owners say they hope customers will show up. And if they do — play by the rules. Folks still need to socially distance — i.e. keep six feet apart. But Privett says that’ll be a little awkward.

“We’re not police officers, we’re bartenders,” he says.

“If they don’t play by the rules, they’ll be asked to leave,” says Powell. “And hopefully everyone understands what we’re trying to do. Because if we don’t, it can come down and we can be shut down again, which we don’t want.”

Powell opened his bar at 1 p.m. last Friday. Sure enough two guys claimed their seats and perched their elbows on the bar, granted six feet apart.

Jennifer Ludwigsen (left) bartends at the Totem Bar, owned by Aaron Powell (right). (June Leffler/ KSTK)

Lloyd Ward and Sam Campus say they aren’t nighthounds. But a quick drink after they finish their errands in town has been a tradition. 

“We come we have a couple beers and we go home. That’s about it. We do it early before the crowd gets here,” Ward says.

They’re following the rules — maintaining social distancing. But Campus thinks it’s weird. 

“We sit close to each other in the truck. Have we got it yet? No. But in a bar here, we’re sitting six feet apart,” he says.

In fact, Ward says he’s skeptical about the COVID-19 restrictions for public health. 

“Many of the things that they’re doing have nothing to do with safety at all of citizens. And it’s really, really damaged businesses,” he says.

He questions if civil liberties are being eroded.

“The Constitution is on our side just governments clearly are not,” Ward says.

Campus is fatalistic. He’s in his seventies — a higher risk of becoming seriously ill if he contracts coronavirus.

“If I get it, I get it. There’s nothing I can do about it,” he says.

By 5 p.m. the bars are filling up. Patrons maintain their distance, no one’s shy to have their conversation bounce across the room. There’s only about six people in the bar. But it’s the Totem — so the after work crowd isn’t often much more than that. 

Charity Hommel and her husband sit at Rayme’s Bar. She says they’re here to support a Privett and his business.

The owners’ patrons are some of his closest friends, and his acquaintances. They can assume what Privett has went through financially for the past 50 days.

Dennis Neff came alone to the bar to relax and make casual conversation.

“This is a breath of fresh air. Family away from family. This is where I enjoy the company of my other acquaintances,” he says.

He’s been tested for COVID-19. It was negative. And he says he had no hesitation about going out. 

“I’m not afraid of it, not one bit. If it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go. But I only speak for myself, because I don’t want anyone else to die or get hurt,” Neff says.

In the days following, bar owners report good enough business. It’s mostly the after work crowd. The late night drinkers are still staying home. But bar owners say with each passing day business is looking good. And they hope it can stay that way. If Wrangell maintains its perfect record with zero cases — it probably can.