Butler County restaurant owners celebrated the loosening of several COVID-19 restrictions over Easter weekend that allowed for greater capacity and less strict rules regarding the sale of alcohol.
Citing a decline in coronavirus cases and rising vaccination rates, Gov. Tom Wolf loosened several restrictions starting Sunday, with restaurants allowed to bring bar service back, and no longer requiring food to be served with alcoholic drink orders.
Additionally, the indoor dining capacity was increased to 75% for restaurants that are self-certified, which involves agreeing to strictly comply with all public health safety guidelines and orders. Other requirements such as mask-wearing and social distancing, including 6 feet between diners, are still in effect.
For Hotel Saxonburg, the number of customers was lower than customary, but owner Judy Ferree was pleased that she was able to be open. She said that on a typical Easter Sunday, the restaurant would serve about 200, but this year there were about 130 customers.
'Will pick up'
“I think it will pick up with the vaccine, weather and stimulus money,” Ferree said. “You can see it pick back up slowly.”
She said that bar service also will help because many regular customers prefer to sit at the bar. “We lost a lot of customers who liked to sit at the bar and eat,” she said. “A lot of people come in alone, and they don't want to sit at a table alone, but eating at the bar they're OK with.”
She said she looks forward to seeing customers at the bar this week.
“I'm pretty excited,” Ferree said. “It's so fun, the atmosphere in there. I miss the people that sat at the bar — you get to know them well.”
She noted that for customers who aren't ready to dine inside, they will provide an outdoor dining area.
Ferree said the closure wasn't all bad for her business. “We now have a pretty good takeout business,” she said. “I hope that it was a group that was untapped, and they will keep doing takeout. We do a lot of burgers and fish sandwiches for takeout. It's been nice; we've seen a lot of people we didn't see before.”
Best day since shutdown
Jim Marron, co-owner with John “Dewey” Irwin of the Allegheny Grille along the river in Foxburg, said the restaurant had a good Easter Sunday. “People are coming out,” Marron said. “It was our best day since the March 17, 2020 closing.”
Easter reservations totaled 315, compared to a non-pandemic year of about 400, Marron said. Outside the restaurant, seating capacity, with restrictions, is 75, and more with the wedding tent. Inside, capacity is close to 150.
Proper staffing is a challenge for the business owners. “We have very loyal employees,” Marron said. He said the restaurant received its second Paycheck Protection Program allocation about a month ago, but despite placing help-wanted ads during a job fair and on Facebook, he said staffing remains an issue.
Fred Reese, owner of Monroe Hotel, was preparing for more business with the opening of the eatery's bar.
“I know customers are anticipating sitting at the bar again,” Reese said. “It's going to alleviate a lot of the overflow issues we have.”
He said that with the bar open and the reduced restrictions, transactions will be simpler for people who want just a drink.
“People are looking forward to just (talking) and to have a drink or two without playing that food game we had going on for awhile,” he said, referring to a previous requirement that food be ordered with all alcoholic drinks.
“It was so insane, and I don't get it, the kind of stuff they had us do,” he said. “It was terrible this past year. We had to lay off employees and reduce expenses.”
And now, he said, “people are ready to come out without a doubt in their mind about safety. It's been over a year.”
He noted that many of the people he laid off have still not returned because unemployment benefits are good enough to keep them from working at his restaurant.
“We're closed on Mondays because we can't find enough people to hire to fill that shift,” Reese said. “People don't want to work because they're just collecting unemployment. Once that runs out, people will look for work.”
'Busier and busier'
And Mac's Cafe on Route 8 reported a similar staffing issue, according to manager Kim Morris.
She said that their business is picking up and “we've been getting busier and busier.”
But, she said, “We're working with limited staff, and it's becoming hard to keep up with everything.”
She continued, “We can't find good workers. Everyone is happy to collect unemployment. And with the extension on it, you just can't find good help.”
That hasn't stopped the restaurants from serving customers, she said. “It's coming along,” she said. “It's not back to 100%, but that's the day I'm waiting for.”
Special Sections Editor Andy Andrews contributed to this report.