Pennsylvania restaurant and bar owners have been waiting since mid-July for Gov. Tom Wolf to relax dine-in capacity limits.
Today, the governor gave his blessing, announcing that starting Sept. 21 establishments can bump up indoor seating from 25% to 50%. However, any reason to celebrate was quickly squashed when Wolf threw the industry a curveball.
As part of the updated orders, establishments with liquor licenses will have to cut off booze orders at 10 p.m., while those restaurants and bars wishing to move up to 50% will need to fill out a self-certification document to be eligible.
Central Pennsylvania restaurant and bar owners expressed displeasure with the governor’s latest guidance. The revised regulations, they say, will only hurt an already struggling industry and could possibly lead to more unemployment and closures.
“He gave us a biscuit but he will only let us eat half of it,” said Don Carter, Jr., owner of several establishments, including Duke’s Riverside and Dockside Willies in Wormleysburg.
- READ MORE: Why did Pa. pick 10 p.m. as the cut off time for bars, restaurants to stop serving alcohol?
Under Wolf’s revised mandates, participating establishments that choose to become certified will appear in a searchable online database. The governor’s office said the program is modeled after similar mitigation efforts in Connecticut, while the alcohol sales cut off is modeled after an effort in Ohio.
“This is an undue burden on an industry struggling for survival,” said John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, in a statement.
Longstreet noted that other states such as Connecticut require all businesses, including grocery stores, retail and big box stores, as well as restaurants and bars, to self-certify.
“While the Governor cites Connecticut as the model, that state’s self-certification In Pennsylvania, only the restaurants and bars are required to self-certify to reach 50% occupancy, while no such action is required of any other business,” he said.
Bars and restaurants can elect to remain at 25% capacity indoors and do not need to fill out the document. Those who participate will receive signage and other items from the state to display.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, participation in the program helps consumers know which businesses are looking out for their health and safety.
Gary Huether, co-owner of the Arooga’s Grille House & Sports Bar chain, said it’s unprecedented the state is asking restaurant owners and no other industries to sign certification paperwork.
Among his grudges, the 10 p.m. deadline for alcohol sales will create challenges among employees who won’t want to work if they can’t earn tips through alcohol sales. It’s also putting a dent in the upcoming football season, as well as pay-per-view events, such as a scheduled UFC card later this month.
NFL games on Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights start late, while the UFC event starts at 10 p.m.
“The issue is now if I have it outside and it starts at 10 p.m., I don’t know how many people are going to come,” Huether said.
Brian Fertenbaugh, owner of Cafe Fresco-Center City, said the cut off will likely increase unemployment in the industry as establishments shave back workers’ hours due to the early closing time.
“I don’t feel like this is going to benefit us this much, trimming back our hours. [Wolf] is giving us one thing and there he goes taking away something else,” Fertenbaugh said.
Earlier today, state Health Department Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine provided more insight into the decision. She pointed to college towns as one reason for the 10 p.m. cut off time.
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“I think we wanted to continue that mitigation effort, and do it particularly in terms of what we’re seeing with college students, with older college students,” Levine told reporters Tuesday. “We have seen a significant increase in terms of the numbers [of confirmed coronavirus cases] in 19- to 24-year-olds. Those numbers, throughout the state, have been going up significantly.”
A news release issued Tuesday indicated that, of the state’s nearly 1.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases since March, approximately 11% are in those who fall into the 19-24 age range.
Matt Flinchbaugh, owner of Flinchy’s in Lower Allen Township, said the busiest time on weekends is between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m, and the most profitable hours when customers order drinks and appetizers.
“We go to 50% for the winter, but closing two hours early. What’s that do, especially if we could serve food for two hours?” Flinchbaugh said.
Carter stressed late-night customers typically order drinks, so by eliminating bar service, it pretty much designates 10 p.m. as the closing time. In Pennsylvania, bars are permitted to be open until 2 a.m.
“Basically, in my opinion he didn’t give us a thing. He gave the diners a plus but a bar with a liquor license really didn’t receive anything,” Carter said.
For Romeo LaMarco, owner of Ted’s Bar & Grill in West Hanover Township and Harrisburg, the 10 p.m. curfew doesn’t make sense, but for different reasons. The majority of people at his establishments come out to eat before 10 p.m.
“It won’t do much of anything because by 10 most of the crowds are gone,” he said.
In addition, LaMarco stressed the industry is faced with so many rules as part of the state’s mitigation, it’s hard to keep up with all of them.
At least one owner said he’ll take all the good news he can get.
The 50% is definitely going to be better than the 25, just for more revenue and for more walk-in business, said Konstantine Pappas, owner of Rookies Craft Burger Bar in Harrisburg.
“Basically you are just waking up every morning praying to the good lord that we can survive another day,” Pappas said.
He acknowledged the 10 p.m. cut off is definitely going to hurt a lot of establishments with liquor licenses. Rookies adjusted its hours to closing at 10 p.m. on weekdays due a drop in late-night business from the pandemic, but is open later on weekends.
“Sometimes people like to come in and have a drink and something to eat after 10 p.m. Now that’s not going to happen, so definitely my business is going to go down,” he said.
According to a news release, the self-certification form will include the following, and must be completed by Oct. 5 for any bar or restaurant that wishes to do so:
- “A list of requirements contained in the current restaurant industry guidance and enforcement efforts;
- A statement that the owner has reviewed and agrees to follow these requirements;
- The business’ maximum indoor occupancy number based on the fire code; and
- A statement that the owner understands that the certification is subject to penalties for unsworn falsification to authorities.”