PALMER — As the vaccine for COVID-19 is administered all over Alaska, local businesses are still functioning in the midst of a pandemic, and finding new ways to connect with customers.

A total of 43,992 Alaskans have received one dose of vaccination and 10,954 have completed their vaccination series. With 296 cases of COVID-19 across Alaska on Friday, businesses are finding ways to thrive in offering socially distant dining experiences for customers.

“We’ve been super affected by it,” said Matanuska Brewing Company co-owner Matt Tomter. “We’ve really worked hard and all over the place worked hard to always meet the mitigation efforts that the cities want us to go through.”

The Matanuska Brewing Company first started brewing locally in Palmer in 2017, and expanded into a tasting room and kitchen that opened in November, with two other Matanuska Brewing Company brewpubs in Anchorage and one in Eagle River. With different restrictions put in place by Anchorage and in the Mat-Su Valley that have fluctuated since March, local business owners discovered new methods to connect with customers who wanted a dining experience in the disparate environments. Demand for enclosed dining environments has risen across the world, and Matanuska Brewing Company has introduced three igloos made of plastic covering outside the tasting room in Palmer as an option for Valley residents.

“We started thinking about doing that as we remodeled the restaurant and took the tasting room and opened it up, put a kitchen in and opened it up. We decided to do that after covid had started and I mean straight up, the business friendly environment in Palmer made that possible. We couldn’t be happier with the way the city has run and operated through the pandemic and allowed businesses to stay open,” said Tomter.

The small igloos are able to be reserved on the Matanuska Brewing Company website and Tomter says that they have been in high demand. With a fresh coat of snow over downtown Palmer on Friday morning, the igloos feature chairs and tables among faux fireplaces and space heaters with twinkling lights strung around the top. The three igloos have only three seatings per day.

“It’s pretty neat, you can look up and see the Palmer Water Tower. It’s all lit up with Christmas lights and you know it’s a pretty cool, fun environment in there. It’s just open,” said Tomter. “People can stay in their own little bubble and they can sit out there with their friends and family and be socially distant from other folks. I think that’s a big draw .I also just think that the fact that you can sit outside in a warm bubble and have a 360 degree view of the outside is pretty neat, right. I mean it’s unique and fun and it’s just something else to go do and people just seem to have a really good time in them.”

On Friday night, Ryan Benedict and his wife Robin Lockwood ate and drank in an igloo at Matanuska Brewing Company in their first in-person dining experience in nearly six months. Benedict describes their ability to eat at their favorite local restaurants as “nonexistent” since last March, with only one outdoor meal at a restaurant since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Benedict takes university courses online from his home.

“I go to school online at home all day not in person so I get cabin fever and I want to go outside and that’s really about it,” said Benedict.

Benedict and Lockwood sit cozily under the Palmer Water Tower and order a flight of locally brewed beer and spicy chicken wings, feeling almost like things are normal inside the igloo.

“It’s nice to be in person and feel the sense of normalcy again,” said Lockwood. “It’s just the sense of comfort. We’ve been choosing to do our part and hunker down for the most part besides our jobs.”

Lockwood works as a teacher in the Mat-Su Borough School District, and follows the school mitigation plan in her work educating students in both virtual and in-person settings simultaneously. Benedict and Lockwood were given the igloo reservation for Christmas, and Lockwood said she was grateful to be able to support local businesses in a wide variety of different ways during the pandemic.

“This feels like a truly safe way to enjoy January in Alaska and our local businesses and each other,” said Lockwood.

Tomter was grateful that due to mitigation efforts by staff and social distancing, Matanuska Brewing Company has not seen employee spread at their restaurants. With soaring popularity in Palmer, Tomter said that igloos would soon become a part of the dining experiences in Anchorage and Eagle River. Tomter said that eight more pumpkin shaped aluminum igloos of a much larger size than those in Palmer are on their way from Romania with four headed to Anchorage and four to Eagle River. Matanuska Brewing Company is not done expanding on their business in Palmer, with construction to begin on the Palmer Cider Company that will be located in the steel building that was previously used as a scale for trucks. While Matanuska Brewing has continued expansion of the three acre lot in downtown Palmer, the block around them became a brewpub brew hub of the Valley. Bleeding Heart Brewery moved in with Alaska Picker in the adjacent lot in November and provide the lights on the Water Tower from Colony Christmas until the end of Iditarod.

“Bleeding Heart Brewing Company moved in right next door to us and we put a gate on our fence and we’re getting in the process of putting that all together where you’ll be able to come in, go to the Matanuska Brewing Company, drink our, beers maybe go over to Bleeding Heart and try theirs through the gate which makes it a 30 second walk and then you can walk back over and go in the scale building and drink ciders at the Palmer Cider House,” said Tomter. “What we’re really working on doing is turning that whole corner that a few years ago was just doing nothing and turning it into a destination and we’re excited about that.”

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