Even with guidelines for capacity being eased this week, Lawrence County restaurant owners are growing frustrated with the state’s handling of the industry amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Tuesday, Gov. Tom Wolf’s office announced restaurants could increase indoor capacity to 50 percent. The new guidelines from Harrisburg are a give and take, as Wolf’s announcement also included restaurants and bars ending alcohol sales at 10 p.m. The new changes go into effect Sept. 21.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Tony Perrotta, owner of the Oasis Bar on Jefferson Street. “I’m trying to operate a business and earn a livelihood. The rules keep changing on what seems like a weekly basis.”
Since mid-July, restaurants have been operating at 25 percent capacity for indoor dining. That number includes all cooks, wait staff and customers. The alcohol restriction is intended, according to Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, to diminish late-night gatherings of college students.
Westminster College is the lone college or university in Lawrence County with students living on campus.
“There’s no college in downtown New Castle, that’s for sure,” Perrotta said. “And if it is specific, we opened up the state on a county-by-county basis. I don’t know why we all fall under the same blanket now. There are different needs for different counties.”
Perrotta said he’s increased his menu options to be compliant with the ever-changing state orders.
Down the street at La Mangia, owner Austin Ayres shared Perrotta’s frustration with how the state is distributing information to restaurant and bar owners. Often, the news on guidelines is heard through television news or passed down by word of mouth or Facebook postings.
“It is frustrating,” Ayres said. “There’s just no information being passed for people.”
The increased capacity for his restaurant and bakery means more than just letting more people sit down, he said.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean just sitting capacity,” Ayres said, “it’s overall who’s allowed in the building.”
In Neshannock Township, Soni’s Restaurant doesn’t have to worry about alcohol sales because it never sold any to begin with. John Sansone, owner of the sit-down Italian restaurant, said the new guidelines impact more than just in capacity.
“It’s the trust of the people coming in,” Sansone said. “For sit-in restaurants, it’s still probably going to take a while whether they say the capacity is 50 or 100 percent for people to feel confident to come out like they used to.
Sansone said his business has been lucky with takeout and pizza orders. He said some of the regulars are back and that there haven’t been any issues with customers not wearing masks.
Overall, he hopes people continue to treat people with the same patience and respect after the pandemic as they did during it.
“A lot of the customers have been so generous and thankful,” Sansone said. “A young guy gave a $100 tip. I’ve seen $100 tips for carryout. It just seems like people are a lot more patient and generous right now.”
In the end, establishment owners are looking forward to the days when the pandemic is a thing of the past.
“I’m praying for they day this is over,” Perrotta said. “This has really hampered business. I know a lot of bars that closed down. I know restaurants that will not reopen. You have people’s whole life that you’re ruining.”