Restaurants will be able to expand indoor capacity from 25 percent to 50 percent come Sept. 21, under new guidelines issued Tuesday by Gov. Tom Wolf.
“Our worry has been what we will do when the weather takes away outdoor dining as an option,” Downtown Indiana Inc. Executive Director Linda Mitchell said. “It has been a real lifesaver this summer. Our restaurants work extremely hard to ensure the safety of their guests so I don’t see any issues with them increasing their capacity. Expect the same safe and wonderful dining experience downtown.”
However, they’ll have to halt alcohol sales after 10 p.m., which many bar owners see as a big drawback.
“Your peak sales are between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.,” said Ken Arthurs, owner of Wolfies Dance & Night Club and Grubs Sports Bar in the 500 block of Philadelphia Street in Indiana. “Wolf giveth and Wolf taketh away.”
“I wish he had extended the drinking to 11 p.m., with the meals,” said Tony DeLoreto, owner of Spaghetti Benders, across the street in the same block. “It would be pretty nice if you serve dinner until 11. Most places, especially if they’re going to close at 11, are going to do a lot of their business from 10 to 11.”
The reactions reflect a mixed bag found among area restaurant and bar owners contacted by the Gazette. Some declined comment, in at least one case while awaiting more details from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.
“We have made progress since our mitigation efforts were enacted in July, and we want to continue that trend,” Wolf press secretary Lyndsay Kensinger said. “The administration wants to support the restaurant industry but do it safely, so we expanded capacity from 25 percent to 50 percent occupancy as the industry has asked, and we created some additional safeguards to increase safety and consumer confidence.”
“The increase is welcome and nice to see, and I understand what (Wolf) is doing and why he is doing it,” said DeLoreto, who also is the Democratic nominee for state Senate in the 41st District.
“The damage has already been done, when he moved us from 50 to 25 percent,” said Denny Della-Penna, co-owner of Bruno’s Restaurant in the 1100 block. “It is going to take at least four to five months for the people to want to get back out again. We had just started to build up a nice clientele when the rug was pulled out. I thought the move from 50 to 25 percent was purely political.”
“It is just another nail in a small-business coffin,” Arthurs said. “Most businesses are about five months behind on everything, from utility payments to taxes.”
The governor has been under pressure, including that of Democratic lawmakers such as state Rep. Joe Petrarca, D-Vandergrift. Last month, Petrarca joined several northwestern Pennsylvania legislators in demanding that Wolf lift the 25 percent indoor capacity restriction, citing the restrictions as hurtful to businesses, which have been following state health guidelines and operations.
“While I applaud (Tuesday’s) announcement and it’s certainly a step in the right direction,” Petrarca said, “I won’t rest until they can fully reopen, and I am confident they can do so safely for their employees and their customers.”
“It’s definitely a tough call for everyone,” said Mauve Tahat, who runs Lemoona House with her husband, Ahmad. “We have outdoor seating on Seventh Street,” she said. “I think it is still hard. People still want the customer experience. They still want to come and eat at a regular restaurant. We’re trying to provide it in the safest way we can. We are nervous as anyone about opening up the dining room.
“Everyone is doing the best they can to stay safe,” Tahat said. “Everyone is kind of confused. What should we do? We want to provide a great experience for our customers and keep them coming, but we are concerned for their safety.”
Arthurs said he can’t make money, as food costs are tremendous.
“After you pay the food buys, and all the costs, we on average make 10 to 20 cents out of every dollar,” he said.
And that’s before the cost of delivering food. Arthur says using UberEats or Doordash puts him 10 cents in the hole.
He also wondered why restaurants and bars are singled out.
“Why doesn’t the same rules apply to Sheetz?” he asked. “Or Walmart for that matter?”
“We continue to see significant increases in cases (of COVID-19) among 19-24 year-olds, and we want to discourage congregating in a restaurant that provides alcohol, so the extra mitigation step of a 10 p.m. end of alcohol sales was included,” Kensinger, the press secretary, said. “A 10 p.m. ‘last call’ does not mean that the restaurant needs to close. They can continue to serve food and stay open through normal operating hours.”
“You’re not going to stop them from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. from drinking,” Arthurs argued. “Quite the opposite is going to happen. There are going to be more underground parties on campus. There are going to be all these speakeasies that will have 100 or more people in the basement … essentially as a nightclub or bar … and not answer to anyone.”
In addition to being allowed to expand capacity on Sept. 21, restaurants have to accept a self-certification process, called the Open and Certified Pennsylvania program, which must be completed by Oct. 5.
“According to the most recent Longwoods International tracking study of American travelers, only 40 percent of Americans are comfortable dining in local restaurants,” Kensinger said. “This mitigation effort is not only for public health and safety, but also to provide consumer confidence in restaurants.”