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Restaurant owners fearful as winter approaches and relief bill falters

Updated: Nov 5


By Jamie Wiggan


-COVID-19-


Local restaurant owners are bracing themselves for more hard times ahead as winter approaches and attempts to bring relief from COVID-19 restrictions through the state legislature fall flat.


“I’m worried,” said Joseph Caliguire, owner of Sarafino’s Pasta & Pizza in Crafton. “Monday was so slow I woke up [the next day] in a cold sweat.”


Like many restaurateurs across the region, Caliguire has propped up his business during the coronavirus era by accommodating additional diners outdoors. But to continue this as the weather cools, he will have to fork out an additional $200 per night to heat a large dining tent set up in the restaurant’s parking lot.


“If we can survive the winter, I think we’re gonna be OK,” he said.


A bid to ease food industry restrictions recently cleared Pennsylvania’s House and Senate, but was vetoed Oct. 16 by Gov. Tom Wolf. An effort four days later to override the veto fell two votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority in the House, and so the bill fell flat.


“It’s very disappointing that the veto override did not take place considering the number of representatives who voted in support of the initial bill,” said State Rep. Anita Kulik (D-45).


Among other provisions, House Bill 2513 would have permitted restaurants and bars to operate at “a minimum of 50% capacity for indoor dining” while implementing social distancing measures consistent with state and federal regulatory guidelines.


The bill also sought to remove a requirement in Wolf’s state-wide emergency order preventing bars from serving alcohol without an accompanying food order.


Kulik said she believes the restaurant industry is disproportionately suffering under COVID-19 restrictions, and could safely operate at the same level as other sectors assuming the right social-distancing measures are in place.


“I’m wholeheartedly in favor of safety measures but we’re unfairly singling out one industry,” she said.


Joe Willett, owner of Lynn’s Cafe in Stowe, said he’s been hurting since state limitations on dine-in occupancy first took effect in March.


“We’ve made it through, but I don’t know how,” he said.


Before the pandemic hit, regular weekend rushes provided a steady revenue stream that carried the business through slow weekdays.


“We were crushed every Saturday and Sunday,” Willett said.


Now the diner has just nine small tables set up inside, and no outdoor space available for seating additional customers.


Another major source of revenue for Lynn's – catering service – has also taken a big hit due to ongoing restrictions on social gatherings.


Willett said a $3,000 dollar government loan awarded back in April has helped him stay afloat, but said the government has done little else to help him since then.


“It’s scary,” he said. “I’ve been here 15 years... I’m about to lose my business now, but I’ll do what it takes” to stay open.


With many cases reported to have stemmed from bar and restaurant customers, the hospitality industry has been heavily regulated since March. During most of this time, indoor capacity has been restricted to 25% of the regular occupancy limit.


In late September, Wolf announced restaurants that opt to self-certify for social distancing compliance could expand their occupancy capacity to 50%. Those that don’t must continue at 25%.


Kulik said she’s not entirely satisfied with this development because it still puts the onus on restaurant owners to self-certify, which is not required in other industries.


Caliguire, who said he doesn’t have much confidence in politicians and expects little help from them, said he wasn’t aware of the self-certifying provision.


“They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do,” he said. “…We’re gonna keep providing good food and good service – we can’t control anything else.”


Since vetoing HB 2513, Wolf has also announced a plan starting January 2021 to waive liquor licensing fees for bars and restaurants, which his office says will save businesses in the hospitality industry a total of $20 million dollars.


State Rep. Dan Deasy D-27, who chairs the Liquor Control Board, worked with Wolf and other legislators on the license relief plan.


“This isn’t a savior for the industry, but an opportunity we suggested to provide some short term relief,” Deasy said in an email response. “...I will continue working to find every opportunity to help the industry. It has been a traumatic eight months for our whole nation and unfortunately, we may have some more time until lives are restored to some normalcy.”


Deasy initially voted in support of HB 2513, but later voted against overriding Wolf’s veto. He said his change of position was prompted by an uptick in Coronavirus cases throughout Pennsylvania.


Deasy and Kulik both pointed to the $1.3 billion of unallocated Federal CARES ACT funding as an outstanding source of support to restaurants and bars throughout Pennsylvania.


Deasy said several bills have been introduced to legislative committees that would allocate portions of the funding to the food industry, but they have not yet arrived on the floor. The CARES Act money must be allocated by the end of the calendar year or it will be returned to Washington.

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