Eateries welcome easing of rules
Despite state COVID-19 regulations that have allowed limited indoor dining in restaurants since June, Finelli’s Italian Villa has remained closed to indoor service from the pandemic’s beginnings in March, but the state’s latest rules revision has inspired owner Frank Finelli to relent.
When indoor dining began and service capacity was 50 percent, he hesitated, and when there was an infection surge that limited capacity to 25 percent, opening up would have been “asinine,” as it would have meant serving no more than five patrons at a time, according to Finelli, who spoke Wednesday at his restaurant.
But now it’s back to 50 percent, starting Sept. 21, and “We’ve got to get rolling again,” Finelli said. “We’ve been sitting on our hands too long.”
Finelli has kept the business going with takeout, which was moderately successful this summer with the help of a seashore-themed approach, but the goal needs to be returning to “100 percent,” he said.
“Fifty percent is a start,” he said.
Even during normal times, Finelli’s keeps its tables farther apart than many restaurants do, not wishing to “cram” patrons together, Finelli said.
To comply with social distancing guidelines, workers just removed one table and spread the others even farther apart, he said.
Still, he’s hardly happy with the other restrictions that will apply.
“There are a helluva lot of rules,” he said.
His restaurant is known for fine dining, and he doesn’t like having to show patrons to virtually empty tables, he said, sharing a picture on a dining website that shows a Finelli’s table set up for normal times, with flowers, folded cloth napkins and other accoutrements.
“It’s fine dining,” he said.
Nor is Finelli happy about having to forgo the shaking of hands, the hugs and the kisses that are part of the Finelli’s experience, he said.
He’s made arrangements to preserve one part of that experience, however: with clear masks for staffers, so patrons can see their smiles.
More generally, Finelli is not happy with the state’s approach to setting the rules.
The whole experience has been “just crazy,” he said, referring to Gov. Tom Wolf as “this clown we have in Harrisburg,” although Wolf’s administration was recently praised by White House coronavirus task force coordinator and Pennsylvania native Deborah Birx for its handling of the pandemic.
Restaurants will need to certify on a state website that they’ll comply with the rules, and they could be subject to unsworn falsification charges if they violate those promises, another wrinkle that earned Finelli’s contempt.
“What kind of nonsense is that,” he said of self-certification.
Further, the “cavalry” may be coming to check for compliance, Finelli said, ticking off the names of agencies involved in enforcement: the Department of Agriculture, the state police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement and the Departments of State, Labor & Industry and Health.
The restaurant industry is “already dying,” said Finelli, who has applied for COVID-related grants, but received nothing. “That’s when they want to kick you,” he said.
Still, “we’ve got to go by whatever rules,” he stated, resignedly.
Finelli first heard of COVID-19 in early March, on vacation in a New Orleans hotel with his wife, when the Louisiana governor came on TV and announced a general shut down.
He learned that his own restaurant would be shut down, too, on the way home, when he heard on the radio about Wolf ordering Pennsylvania’s closures.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Finelli said. “I don’t want to get this (disease).”
But the danger hardly seem acute, given that only about 500 people in Blair County so far have tested positive out of a population of about 120,000, he said.
“This was (at first) supposed to be a two-week deal,” he said ruefully.
Moving from 25% to 50% capacity will help a little, said Karen Reilly, manager of Lena’s Cafe.
It will mean raising the restaurant’s current limit of 25 people — including employees — to about 35, including a larger employee contingent, Reilly said.
The configuration of the small restaurant and management’s determination to be “safe and careful” means that doubling capacity won’t provide as much benefit as it would to some restaurants configured differently, Reilly said.
People still can’t sit at the bar, she said.
A tactic the restaurant has used to deal with the capacity limits is to ask recent arrivals for whom there are no available tables to wait in their cars until they get a text or an employee comes to fetch them, Reilly said.
Fortunately, patronage has tended to be “steady and evenly dispersed,” she said.
Since the pandemic began, takeout “has carried us” — with family-style meals and pans of lasagna, Reilly said.
In keeping with state orders, the restaurant opened for indoor dining in June at 50 percent, then after a couple months, shrank to 25 percent, she said.
Accordingly, staff size went from 23 full- and part-timers to seven or eight, with those who left the restaurant able to collect unemployment compensation, she said.
After reopening, the number of employees settled at about 16, she said.
It may go up, as Lena’s returns to 50 percent, she said.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.