Virus Outbreak Pennsylvania

People gather June 28, 2020, at the Porch restaurant in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

(The Center Square) – Capacity limits on Pennsylvania’s bars and restaurants can relax to 50 percent later this month, Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday. 

The announcement comes nearly two months after the administration told establishments to cut indoor service to 25 percent – a policy change the industry called so drastic and devastating that more than 7,000 risked permanent closure.

Restaurants can increase capacity beginning Sept. 21, so long as they certify with the state that they are following social distancing mandates no later than Oct. 5. The results will appear in the Open & Certified Pennsylvania searchable online database for public use.

Wolf said the database provides confidence to consumers and supports the struggling hospitality industry – arguably the hardest hit by economic sanctions implemented as a result of the pandemic.

“The self-certification ensures that restaurants can expand indoor operations and commit to all appropriate orders so that employees and customers alike can be confident they are properly protected,” he said.

A survey conducted by the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association last month extrapolated the alarming condition of the industry, with seven in 10 respondents indicating they would close by 2021 without a change in the state’s policies. More than two-thirds experienced cash flow problems caused by the restrictions.

The survey of 100 licensed restaurants and bars, released Tuesday, found 13 percent closed already, with 29 percent set to close by December. More than 109,200 employees have been laid off, the association estimates.

“These results shouldn’t surprise anyone,” said Chuck Moran, executive director of the PLBTA. “When you’re limited to 25 percent indoor capacity and have seen increased expenses along with other difficulties due to state orders, you can expect a serious crisis to develop."

House Republicans think the change – while necessary – doesn't go far enough. House GOP spokesperson Jason Gottesman also questioned why it will take another two weeks to implement.

“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,” he said.

Moran agreed that 50 percent capacity won't solve the financial crisis many businesses are facing – especially when outdoor service becomes impossible during fall and winter.

He also noted that buried in Wolf's announcement is a new rule restricting alcohol sales after 10 p.m. – a policy he says weakens the higher capacity rule and discriminates against its members that don't offer daytime service.

"This hidden rule will help put many more establishments out of business," he said. "In a 2019 survey of Pennsylvania small business taverns and licensed restaurants, alcohol sales make up 63 percent of their business. Cutting four hours of sales off a 10- to 14-hour business operation hurts significantly."

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.