Restaurants ready for green light

Plexiglass dividers have been installed between booths in Edward's Restaurant dining room. 

HARRISBURG — Restaurants and bar operators say that many closed eateries won’t reopen and many that are open won’t survive unless the state relaxes the limits on indoor dining.

Pennsylvania has been limiting restaurants to 25% capacity since July 15, while bars that don’t serve food have been closed entirely since then.

Only California, which has banned indoor dining completely and New Jersey, which has the same 25% limit, have restrictions as stringent as Pennsylvania, Bill Covaleski, the vice chairman of the board of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association told a panel of lawmakers on Friday.

Other than Gov. Tom Wolf’s call for postponing scholastic sports, the limit on indoor dining has been the most controversial aspect of his strategy for slowing the spread of coronavirus over the summer.

Wolf on Monday said he doesn’t intend to lift the restrictions on restaurant dining until the state navigates the process of reopening schools.

“Our focus ought to be getting our kida and our older students in higher education back in school. Anything we do to take our eye off that ball is going to be a problem,” he said. “The next couple of weeks will tell the tale.”

State Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton County, said that the pressure to relax the restrictions on indoor dining is going to intensify as the state heads into fall and outdoor dining at restaurants ceases to be an option.

“Outdoor seating has been a lifeline. As we get closer to colder months, these businesses need a plan,” she said.

If the state doesn’t act, “I believe the industry will be hollowed out,” she said.

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, told reporters on Thursday that the 25% limit on indoor dining was part of a strategy developed by scientists at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, that federal officials championed over the summer as states tried to rein to outbreaks.

The CHOP researchers concluded that a focused effort on restricting indoor dining along with other mitigation efforts, like universal face masks, would be just as effective as a broad economic shutdown.

Wolf’s spokeswoman, Lyndsay Kensinger, on Friday, said the administration is “constantly reviewing mitigation tactics” when asked about when the state might dial back the 25% limit on indoor dining.

While the restaurants are lobbying for the ability to serve more customers, there’s evidence that many diners remain worried about how well restaurants are following the state’s existing health and safety guidelines, said Department of Agriculture Food Safety Director Jeff Warner.

The number of complaints to the Bureau of Food Safety from the public has doubled since the pandemic hit with most of that increase coming from diners who don’t think restaurants are following the law, Warner said.

Due to the flood of complaints, the bureau has had to stop responding in-person to every complaint, he said. Now, restaurants only get complaint-prompted inspections if there is more than one complaint from more than one diner, he said.

Covaleski said the state’s reports on what COVID-19 patients are telling contact tracers hasn’t demonstrated a link that justifies keeping restaurant dining so limited. On top of that, the state’s guidance is deterring diners from even considering going out to eat because people don’t think it’s safe, he said.

“We will lose thousands of businesses if this July 15 decision isn’t reversed,” he said.

CNHI PA State Reporter

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for the New Castle News and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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