State relaxing restrictions on restaurants

John Abplanalp, left, and his wife Tracy, far right, enjoy sitting outside at The Keg restaurant patio while talking with George 'Jig'’ Warren, owner of the restaurant. The Wolf Administration announced Tuesday that it will relax restrictions on restaurants to allow them to operate at 50 percent capacity beginning Sept. 21.

HARRISBURG — The Wolf Administration announced Tuesday that it will relax restrictions on restaurants to allow them to operate at 50 percent capacity beginning Sept. 21, but require them to end alcohol sales at 10 p.m.

The earlier alcohol sales cutoff is intended to diminish late-night gatherings of college students, Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said. The move was not well received by the industry.

Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association said many small taverns that historically hadn’t sold food have added some food items in order to keep their doors open. The move to bar liquor sales after 10 p.m. will be devastating and offset gains from being allowed to increase the number of customers allowed inside, he said.

The 10 o’clock last call is “a catch that will kill many establishments,” Moran said.

“Cutting off alcohol sales at 10 p.m. for a business that only operates 10 to 14 hours a day is going to be a significant hit for those,” he said. “Many only open in the late afternoon for dinner and run until 2 a.m. Even those that open for lunch and stay open until 2 a.m. are going to feel this pinch.”

The tavern association said its members estimate that alcohol sales account for 63% of sales revenue.

Restaurants have been limited to 25 percent capacity since July 15. The same order also prohibited bars that don’t sell food from operating at all.

The shift to allow eateries to operate at 50 percent capacity doesn’t lift the order shuttering bars and nightclubs that don’t sell food, Levine said.

Levine said that the 10 o’clock last call is intended to deter college students from congregating late-at-night in eateries, adding that campuses across the state have already been forced to deal with coronavirus outbreaks among students.

The tavern association surveyed its members and found that close to 30 percent haven’t reopened since Wolf’s July 15 order. That survey also found that the average tavern furloughed 13 workers when it closed.

Under the state’s new plan, restaurants will be asked to self-certify that they are complying with the state’s safety guidelines to operate at 50 percent capacity. Restaurants that complete this self-certification process will be included in an online database to help diners identify restaurants complying with the state guidance, Gov. Tom Wolf said.

“While our aggressive and appropriate mitigation efforts have kept case counts low, we must continue to take important steps to protect public health and safety as we head into the fall. At the same time, we must also support the retail food services industry that has struggled throughout this pandemic,” Wolf said. “The self-certification ensures that restaurants can expand indoor operations and commit to all appropriate orders so that employees and customers alike can be confident they are properly protected.”

Any restaurant that wishes to increase to 50 percent indoor capacity on Sept. 21 must complete the online self-certification process by Oct. 5.

PENDING LEGISLATION

Republicans in the General Assembly said that Wolf’s move to relax restrictions on restaurants doesn’t go far enough.

Wolf indicated last week that he was waiting to see how the process of reopening schools went before relaxing the restaurant restriction. His announcement on Tuesday came an hour before a Senate committee had scheduled a vote on legislation that called for relaxing the restrictions to allow eateries to operate at 50% capacity. That legislation, House Bill 2513, passed in the state House in May.

After Wolf’s announcement, lawmakers on the Senate Law and Justice committee announced that House Bill 2513 was being amended to eliminate the state requirement that diners buy food in order to buy alcoholic drinks. The legislation was approved by the committee unanimously.

“The return to 50 percent occupancy is welcome news to the industry. It’s something we’ve asked for repeatedly since July 15 but it is a hollow win when other mitigation standards are added,” sad Melissa Bova, vice president of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Those other mitigations efforts include the 10 o’clock last call, requiring food purchases to buy drinks and the continued ban on hosting private events for more than 25 people.

Bova said the restaurant industry also opposes the Wolf Administration’s move to delay the change to 50 percent occupancy for two weeks.

Levine said the state set the Sept. 21 start date for relaxing the restrictions to give restaurant operators time to complete the self-certification process.

State Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence, said he is encouraged by news that restaurants may return to 50 percent indoor capacity beginning Sept. 21, subject to a self-certification requirement, but he questioned new and existing alcohol service restrictions he said could negate or dilute any positive economic impact.

“We called on the governor to lift an overly broad, arbitrary rule that placed restaurants in an economic stranglehold, and we succeeded,” Sainato said. “The administration’s response abolishing the rule comes none too soon, with so many restaurants struggling to survive. Restoring the 50 percent capacity rule makes sense and will help our businesses get back on the path to economic vitality.

“At the same time, the administration is keeping certain harmful restrictions in place, including a ban on bar service and a requirement that alcohol can only be served for on-premises consumption when in the same transaction as a meal. Those requirements — together with another that will require restaurants to stop serving alcohol by 10 p.m. — stand to counter many of the positive impacts achieved by restoring broader occupancy. Restaurants depend on a robust after-dinner patronage, and many social and veterans’ clubs are not set up to serve food. Absent a sound, health-based justification, I would urge the governor to reconsider these restrictions.”

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 jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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