Owners of bars, eateries scared
Chuck Moran is executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, but lately his work has been less about lobbying for the locally owned bars comprising most of his membership and more about counseling the owners of those bars, Moran told a hearing of the state House Majority Policy Committee Tuesday.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began in March, many of those establishments have been on a “downward spiral,” and they’re taking their proprietors with them, Moran told the representatives.
“(They’re) desperate,” he said, explaining that he tries to talk them out of despondency. “I can hear the panic in their voices.”
He felt compelled to give one woman the number of a suicide hotline, he said.
The administration’s response to COVID-19, including the latest order limiting indoor capacity in restaurants to 25 percent and prohibiting alcohol service without meals, is decimating the food and beverage industry, largely because it’s been too indiscriminate, according to many of the 11 industry representatives who testified.
“One size fits all,” said John Longstreet, CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association.
“(The orders) should have been wielded like a scalpel,” said Mick Owens, owner of two restaurants in Lancaster County. “Instead, (the governor) chose to use a machete.”
Rather than penalizing “bad actors” who flout the rules, the state has come down on all restaurants and bars with “blanket” regulations, Owens said.
“Ninety-five percent of restaurants are trying to do the right thing,” Longstreet said.
Geographically too, the orders have been too blunt, according to Riki Tanaka, who operates a restaurant in McKean County, where there have been only 21 cases in a population of 42,000, he said.
To group McKean with its “minuscule” count with Philadelphia or Allegheny counties is not fair, he said.
Decisions should be made “county-by-county,” Longstreet said.
Restaurants are accustomed to conforming with public health guidelines designed to prevent disease, and are capable of doing so for COVID-19, according to Arnold Ivey, chef at the Ironrock Taphouse in Westmoreland County.
Only hospitals pay more attention to hygiene, said Rui Lucas, who owns restaurants in Montgomery County.
“We are not an unsafe industry,” Lucas said.
Pennsylvania is the third most restrictive state in the nation on restaurants, after California and New Jersey, Longstreet said, citing WalletHub. He said its restrictions are “unfair” and “capricious.”
The state should do away with capacity restrictions altogether and let restaurants rely on barriers between tables — and bar seats, where service is prohibited, Owens said.
Using capacity restrictions instead of barriers is like limiting the number of passengers in cars instead of requiring seatbelts, he said.
It may be easy to point at the food and beverage industry as a culprit, but “if there’s science about that, I would love to see it,” Lucas said.
Health Secretary Rachel Levine provided her argument in written testimony.
The state Department of Health imposed the latest restrictions in response to a surge in cases in several western counties, where caseloads were skewing toward younger adults, many of whom reported to contract tracers having patronized bars and restaurants, Dr. Levine wrote.
Allegheny County imposed restrictions in an effort to mitigate its surge first, she said.
Her restrictions mirror not only those, but ones imposed in other states, including Texas, California and Florida, she wrote.
They are among the kind of restrictions recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she added.
“Public health agencies have recognized the closure of restaurants and bars as an effective mitigation measure, she wrote.
But restaurants are especially vulnerable to the economic damage of restrictions, given that the average margin is 5 to 7 percent, according to Owens.
“This business is hard enough to manage under the most perfect conditions,” Tanaka said. “Throw in the governor’s orders, and it’s flat impossible.”
Restaurant owners are losing their homes and having their life savings stripped away, Lucas said.
About 7,500 restaurants employing more than 200,000 people may close permanently, Longstreet predicted, citing a Yelp survey.
With the coming of cold weather, which will eliminate outdoor seating and generally depress business, things are likely to get worse, according to Tanaka.
There will be collateral damage to other businesses that supply restaurants, including distributors of food, liquor and beer, along with service businesses for systems like heating, ventilation and air conditioning and cleaning service, Lucas said.
“There’s an enormous supply chain behind us,” he said.
Restaurants aren’t asking for “hundreds of thousands of dollars because we gambled it away,” Lucas said, referring to the bailouts for companies whose high-risk financial bets led to the 2008 recession. “This is not our fault.”
Not only are the rules stifling, but they’re ever-changing and enforced unevenly, according to those who testified.
It was difficult and frustrating six weeks ago dealing with the administration when the Ironrock Taphouse had a positive case, Ivey said.
The restaurant ended up closing for two weeks unnecessarily due to misleading guidance from contact tracers, he said.
Their approach frightened employees with the prospect of confinement against their will, he said.
The shutdown cost “tens of thousands of dollars,” the Ironrock owner said.
“We have no problem following the guidelines,” Ivey said. But he needs to know what they are, he added.
One Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board agent says one thing, another one says another, said Jim DeLisio of the Racehorse Tavern in York County.
The rules “change every 15 minutes” anyway, he said. “We need black and white guidelines.”
But the Wolf administration has the leverage to keep doing what it’s doing, according to Owens.
“The governor’s office has weaponized our (liquor and health) licenses,” he said.