Op-Ed Column by State Senator Lisa Boscola
Imagine a longer-than-anticipated workday that leads to a late dinner with a desire for an adult beverage. Pre-COVID, this was not only a common occurrence, but also legal with plenty of dining options. However, in Pennsylvania, it is no longer feasible to enjoy a quick late-night meal while sitting at your favorite bar. While we have taken great care to protect the citizens of the commonwealth during the pandemic, we also have been inconsistent with the implementation and guidance associated with risk mitigation policies, especially for the restaurant industry.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, noted in a recent article that public health interventions should be as least restrictive and as targeted as possible based on evidence. He went on to note that states should have a definitive time frame and identify the metrics used to put the restrictions in place and a process by which they are re-evaluated. This has been lacking in the policies surrounding restaurants and bars since the Governor walked back the restaurant regulations initially allowed in the “green” phase.
The Governor’s green phase regulations issued back in May provided for 50 percent capacity, bar service with appropriate spacing and no food purchase requirement. Based on this policy the Hotel Bethlehem, Zest and many others invested significant dollars to meet the regulations in anticipation of our county’s transition to Green. Specifically, they installed plexiglass dividers to distance employees from customers and built wings to separate patrons into groups of two at their bars.
Most proprietors understand that congregating at the bar without masks puts both employees and customers at risk. However, prohibiting service at the bar only shrinks a restaurant’s already limited capacity by rendering one of their safest dining areas unusable.
The restaurant and lodging industry is critical to Pennsylvania. The industry employs over 550,000 people and accounts for nearly $25 billion in sales (2018 data). Prior to the pandemic, the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association represented over 26,000 locations including restaurants, hotels, breweries, wineries, distilleries and event centers. Every day that number is shrinking and every day it gets harder for those who are fighting to stay open to survive. The pandemic is the driving force behind the industry’s woes, but our state policies further exacerbate the issue. Currently we have the third most restrictive policies in the country, which are being applied statewide regardless of COVID’s local impact.
While the Governor recently announced an increase in capacity to 50 percent via a self-certification process, his latest mandate still maintains a requirement to order food with your adult beverage and compels establishments to stop serving alcohol by 11 p.m. These policies make it harder, not easier, to operate. Business owners look for some type of regulatory certainty and in the era of COVID a clearer understanding of when temporary restrictions will be revaluated and eventually removed.
The administration points to a study from the Centers Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) as well as the rise in cases in the state for people between the ages of 19-24. They also point to a July study from Allegheny County regarding the number of people who tested positive AND had visited a restaurant in the last 14 days. However, it never suggests a safe level at which restaurants could expand occupancy.
In a review of policies in other states, New York recognized early on that not all areas should be treated similarly. As early as June 11, areas outside New York City had indoor capacity of restaurants raised to no more than 50 percent of the maximum occupancy, exclusive of employees. There is no curfew and bar seating is included in the capacity permitted with appropriate social distancing and mask wearing. The onus is on the business owners to implement these policies by using the potential loss of license and immediate shutdown for those entities that violate the rules.
Why not take the same approach in Pennsylvania? How about raise the maximum capacity of a restaurant to 50 percent with no curfew? Allow bar service with appropriate distancing with a plan to expand incrementally — then see what happens over specific period?
Pennsylvania’s current plan appears overly broad, not measured and not tailored to the local level. In fact, given our diversity it would be possible to implement policies strategically and locally, thereby limiting the ongoing damage COVID has had to this important industry. I supported House Bill 2513 because it provides restaurants with slightly more flexibility to operate during this pandemic. Providing small businesses with grants to survive the initial shutdown kept them open. Now, it is a much different time, and we need to set policies that give them a fighting chance to not only survive; but thrive.
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