Restaurants in Pennsylvania find creative ways to survive amid pandemic restrictions

By Christen Smith | The Center Square

It’s been two weeks since Gov. Tom Wolf banned indoor dining and alcohol sales at restaurants statewide amid an alarming spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

And for many owners, abiding by the rules – devastating as they may be – remains a top priority, even if it challenges everything they know about running a successful business.

“We want to do what’s best for the public, and that’s always been our goal in everything we do,” said Jessica Elliot Alaya, co-owner of two restaurants in central Pennsylvania. “It just seems like the right thing to do. It honestly does.”

Elliot Alaya and her husband opened Home 231 in Harrisburg nine years ago. Revival Social Club in downtown York followed in 2017. The couple employs about 20 workers between the two locations and said keeping their staff paid required some creative thinking.

“It’s been interesting. It’s been different,” she said. “It’s given us an opportunity to do new things we’ve never done before.”

From Taco Tuesdays to virtual happy hours to online wine dinners, Elliot Alaya said adapting to the circumstances and keeping customers engaged has helped her restaurants weather multiple shut downs.

“We are going to make do one way or the other,” she said. “We are not going to rely on anybody else at this point, and we are just going to figure it out.”

It’s a common sentiment among other restaurateurs in the area, all of whom agreed to speak to The Center Square after joining a Facebook group – York County Restaurant Take Out – that showcases local restaurants that are following public health orders and still serving customers.

“We are not going to criticize places that choose to stay open, everybody has their own reasons why,” said Jonathan Torres, general manager of Kissho Sushi in York. “We decided to close down to try to help stop the spread. We are younger, but for our parents and our grandparents and the people that are most affected, it’s mostly for them that we did it. A lot of our customers are older too.”

Torres said Kissho closed its dining room a week before Wolf banned indoor service statewide after customers flouted the universal mask order. The restaurant contracts with Door Dash to offer delivery and will continue to do so even if restrictions expire on Jan. 4, 2021.

“We will wait another two or three weeks after the ban lifts just to make sure the spread is slowing,” he said. “Us being located right across from York Hospital, it really reminds us to do everything we can to help them out.”

Robert Godfrey, owner of the Handsome Cab – located just a block away from Elliot Alaya’s restaurant in downtown York – said he doesn’t expect the restrictions will lift any time soon. It’s a challenge for a restaurant like his that relies on the experience of dining out above all else, he said, but one they will overcome nonetheless. As such, The Handsome Cab will offer event-based specials, such as to-go party packs and selling wine by the bottle until its safe to dine out again.

“Everyone is adapting and changing and trying all kinds of things just to survive,” he said. “The whole thing has been a roller coaster in many ways, from being a police of masks and our staff having re-learn how to do things, even though we are one of the cleanest, most sanitized industries there is.”

The Department of Health maintains that data links spikes in COVID-19 infections to restaurants and bars, though many disagree and instead cite mass congregations of shoppers at grocery stores and other big box retailers allowed to stay open as the source of rising case counts.

When Wolf first shut down restaurants and bars in March, he did so with less than 48 hours notice, Godfrey said. Later, temporary bans – like the limit on Thanksgiving Eve alcohol sales or the current three week pause on indoor dining – came with just 36 hours advanced warning. Many establishments were forced to donate or throw away food and other supplies typically ordered a week in advance – all losses that insurance companies refused to cover, Godfrey said.

“We lost 20 bottles worth of wine, 20 kegs of wine – there’s just a lot of cost in this,” he said. “Even a week’s notice would make it much better because you could plan for the closing.”

A survey conducted by the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association in August 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 limits on indoor dining capacity and alcohol sales. More than two-thirds experienced cash flow problems caused by the pandemic restrictions.

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

Godfrey said the restrictions reduced his restaurant’s weekly sales to one-tenth of what they were pre-pandemic. Outdoor dining allowed for some recovery during the summer, he said, but after cold weather set in, sales began dwindling again.

Still, Godfrey said, he will follow the public health orders.

“We are following the rules because we think it’s important,” he said. “We won’t open illegally. It doesn’t matter what the government mandates … if people are too afraid to come out and aren’t coming out and filling the restaurant, it doesn’t really matter because we are not making enough to stay open anyway.”

Wolf said he continues to support federal and state relief for restaurants and bars. He signed a seven-month budget plan in November that used the remaining $1.3 billion in CARES Act money – aid that could’ve funded and industrywide relief, according to many Democrats – to balance the state’s $3 billion deficit, leaving it unclear when or if establishments will see any stimulus at all.

It came as little surprise, then, when some restaurants – unable to withstand the financial impacts of another shut down – ignored the governor’s Dec. 12 mandate to close their dining rooms for another three weeks.

The Department of Agriculture sent 150 establishments warning letters addressing violations for ignoring the universal masking mandate, social distancing requirements and capacity limits between Dec. 7 and Dec. 13. The Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement also identified 11 pending violations for bars and restaurants not complying with the Department of Health’s orders, bringing the total to more than 400 since July 1.

“I worry for their health,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine told reporters Monday. “I think they are exposing themselves, their families, their loved ones, their staff at the facilities. They are putting their community at risk for continuing the spread of COVID-19.”

Chuck Moran, PLBTA’s executive director, said his members also complain about the restaurants that ignore the orders, despite the efforts of most to comply.

“It’s super frustrating to get 10 phone calls a day asking if we are open for indoor dining,” Elliot Alaya said. “I have people who are angry and yelling and will just hang up on us. People are flabbergasted that we are following the rules.”

Godfrey said customers fight the mask mandate and others accuse him of “killing people just by being open at all.”

“We are just trying to keep our workers employed and keep ourselves afloat and pay our own bills,” he said. “People can be very judgmental, but they don’t walk in our shoes.”

The most recent ban on indoor dining is set to expire Jan. 4, 2021. Levine said her office will consult with the governor this week about whether to extend the restrictions. Preliminary data suggests the current mitigation efforts are working to plateau hospitalizations, she said.

“It’s critically important to continue our mitigation efforts and really not to get together in gatherings on New Years Eve or New Years Day,” she said. “We want to make sure the current plateau and even decrease that we are seeing continues in the new year.”

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