Gov. Wolf relaxes restrictions on indoor dining

Capacity rises from 25% to 50% starting Sept. 21

September 16, 2020 Cranberry Local News

Patrons dine outdoors at the Harmony Inn last week. The state announced Sept. 8 that restaurants will be able to resume indoor dining at 50 percent occupancy on Sept. 21.

Pennsylvania restaurants will be allowed to seat more patrons inside after Gov. Tom Wolf announced last week he is relaxing restrictions on indoor dining.

Restaurants may increase indoor occupancy from 25% to 50% of capacity starting Sept. 21, more than two months after the administration first reimposed pandemic restrictions on the state’s beleaguered hospitality industry in response to a spike in virus infections.

“The move to 25% ... was an attempt to flatten the curve in Pennsylvania. We were starting to see a troubling rise,” Wolf said at a news conference in Lancaster. “Now I think we’re at a point where we are ready to lift that, partially.”

Bar and restaurant owners have said they were unfairly blamed for rising virus case numbers, challenging the Wolf administration to provide evidence. At a House hearing last month, industry officials warned that thousands of establishments were in danger of closing permanently without relief from the state.

Joe Savage, owner of Monte Cello’s in Cranberry Township, said he thinks the state should have gone after individual restaurants who violated pandemic guidelines and kept compliant restaurants at half-capacity, rather than moving all establishments to 25% seating.

“Places that won’t abide by the rules will maybe shut back down again, and I think that’s the way it should have been originally,” he said.

Establishments that want to increase capacity must certify to the state that they are complying with all public health guidelines. Those restaurants will then appear in a searchable state database called “Open & Certified Pennsylvania,” the administration said.

Other restrictions on the hospitality industry will still apply. Restaurants must stop selling alcohol at 10 p.m., and bars that don’t offer meal service will remain shut down.

“I think we’re in a position to recognize the hardship that this has caused the restaurants and at the same time continue to do what we can do to keep people safe,” Wolf, a Democrat, said Monday.

Republican leaders in the House said bars and restaurants suffered a “lost summer” because of Wolf’s capacity restrictions.

“The governor’s announcement today is a step in the right direction, but opening restaurants to 50 percent is merely a break-even point for many of these small businesses and the order puts a number of restrictions on these establishments’ ability to do business,” House GOP spokesman Jason Gottesman said in an email.

Bob McCafferty, owner of Harmony Inn and North Country Brewing Co., said other entities — such as schools — have been able to continue, and believed restaurants shouldn’t be held to different standards. “Obviously, it’s better than 25%, but we still have 100% of the bills,” he said. “With distancing, I feel restaurants could be open 100%. We’re heading into the winter now — 50% just doesn’t cut it. Ultimately, restaurants are going to continue to close.”

Savage said he wasn’t sure how much the restriction lifting would affect his business. He said he’s seen people order takeout instead of dining in because they assume the restaurants will already be at maximum capacity.

“It’s been going on so long, our business has built back up pretty good. I’m going to say that (the lifted restriction will improve business by), maximum, 10%,” he said. “Even at 50%, people don’t go out to eat because they figure you’re going to be maxed out anyway.”

Still, Savage said, he’s glad the governor adjusted the rule. “It’s about time,” he said.