It has been an up-and-down year for businesses seeking to cope with COVID-19.
Mostly down, particularly since March 16 when Gov. Tom Wolf extended coronavirus “mitigation efforts” across the state from the Philadelphia area.
“March 16, the day before St. Patrick’s Day,” said Tim McQuaide at The Coney. “We lost St. Patrick’s Day, IUPatty (weekend) and the St. Patrick’s Day parade that we sponsor every year.”
“We stayed closed till graduation week,” said Nick Karas, who runs Nap’s Cucina Mia and Josephine’s with his wife and parents.
That was June 5 when Indiana County transitioned under the governor’s standards from the yellow to the green phase of pandemic-related restrictions.
“We can’t wait to welcome everyone back! Please be patient and understanding as we are learning something new everyday,” Benjamin’s Restaurant posted on Facebook. “We appreciate all your support and we are looking forward to serving you!”
Karas and his family came out of a self-quarantine and began offering curbside service.
“We’re not going to make any money this year,” Karas said. “We’re going to tread water.”
Then came July 16 when Pennsylvania imposed broad new statewide restrictions on bars, restaurants and larger indoor gatherings. Nightclubs were shut down, bars closed unless they also offered dine-in meals, and bars and restaurants would be limited to 25 percent capacity.
“What I hear is that 25 percent is not enough capacity to support a business,” said Linda Mitchell, executive director of Downtown Indiana Inc. “They still rely heavily on take out and to go cocktails. I think that they are also doing the best they can with changing regulations — sometimes only being given hours to adapt — and with enforcing all the rules. They need our support!”
At The Artists Hand Gallery, owner Brian Jones said “we’re not as affected by the 25 percent capacity.” It is a gallery that has an espresso bar and serves artisan-style sandwiches, baked goods and fruit.
“We are able to give people who are out and are willing to take the risk a destination to go to,” Jones said.
The Coney is one of several restaurants along Philadelphia Street that can take advantage of the sidewalks “as long as we’re socially distancing,” McQuaide said. “We’re lucky we have a lot of outdoor seating.”
He’s also received the borough’s blessing to block off a couple parking spaces and get three more tables in.
“We feature indoor and outdoor seating options with a kids’ and gluten-free menu,” Spaghetti Benders posted on its Facebook page Saturday. “All menu items are also available for takeout.”
H.B. Culpeppers announced on Facebook July 16 that the borough provided that establishment with parking vouchers that will pay patrons to garage parking while they dine there.
“The garage is right behind our building,” H.B. Culpeppers posted.
Still, the impact is felt in other ways beside occupancy. McQuaide said he is trying to hire people, though The Coney is down to one-third of its normal staff.
“We’re always looking to hire competent people,” McQuaide said.
“We lost a lot of great employees,” Karas said. His restaurants once had 26 employees including students in Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s culinary program.
State Rep. Joseph Petrarca, D-Vandergrift, joined several other Democratic legislators, including Rep. Frank Burns from Cambria County, in writing to the governor, demanding he lift the 25 percent indoor restriction and restore a previously allowed 50 percent capacity.
“I have voted approximately 30 times in support of efforts to open up our businesses,” said Petrarca, whose district extends along the Kiskiminetas River to Saltsburg. “We are at the point where we need to trust these businesses to fully reopen safely, and that includes our restaurants, taverns and bars.”
Petrarca said 50 percent capacity is difficult enough, but “25 percent is unsustainable and will lead to more local businesses closing their doors for good.”
Members of the state House Republican Caucus, including Reps. Jim Struzzi, Cris Dush and Jeffrey Pyle who represent most of Indiana County, sent a common message to their constituents this weekend: “Owners of the state’s restaurants, bars and taverns told members of the House Majority Policy Committee Tuesday the industry cannot survive the governor’s extreme COVID-19 restrictions on indoor dining and bar seating.”
The committee heard from business owners as well as advocates from the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, and Pennsylvania Federation of Fraternal and Social Organizations.
“In addition to outlining negative impacts the orders have had on their businesses, several testifying also offered suggestions to help the industry through the pandemic,” the GOP caucus said, after what is meant to be the first of a series of hearings where the caucus plans to work “to develop policies to help the state and various business and industry sectors recover from the impacts of COVID-19 mitigation.”
In a daily advisory issued Saturday, state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said Pennsylvania must “renew our commitment” to such requirements as mask-wearing, social distancing “and following the requirements set forth in the orders for bars and restaurants,” as well as other large gatherings and having employees telework (work from home) if possible.
“Pennsylvania has been a model for the country on how to reopen effectively using a careful, measured approach,” Levine said. “However, we know the virus has not gone away as we see cases rise, so we must work together to stop another surge.”
Some bars across the state offered what at least one establishment called a “governor’s menu,” with such items as hotdogs and packaged peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
That prompted the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to offer a clarification, saying sales of alcohol for on-premises consumption were only permissible as part of a larger transaction that included a meal purchase.
And a “meal” as defined in the state liquor code is “food prepared on the premises, sufficient to constitute breakfast, lunch or dinner.” It also expressly stated that a snack, such as pretzels, popcorn or chips, did not meet the definition of a meal.
It’s not something McQuaide has worried about, even though he’s had to cut back hours of operation.
“Our food business has been pretty solid,” the Coney owner said. “We thank Indiana for all the positive support. We’ve seen a lot of people we haven’t seen before.”
Meanwhile, Indiana area establishments are filling whatever niches they can.
Karas has two tables made by Barn Born Furniture in Indiana that seat 8-16 people for “high-end multi-course dinners,” for family-oriented events such as birthdays, anniversaries, funerals — and even a marriage proposal.
“We did six or seven (events) throughout July,” Karas said. “August is pretty well booked up.”
Jones found the time to put the entire Artists Hand inventory online.
Also, he said, “we did manage to get a (Payment Protection Program) loan (from the Small Business Administration) and put our staff back on the payroll.”