After the cruelest year, April will bring new hope to the battered restaurant industry.

Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday announced a relaxation of restrictions on restaurants, theaters and gyms, removing most of the limits for the business that have been closely regulated over the last year in order to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Beginning Easter Sunday, April 4, restaurants may resume serving customers at a bar, alcohol can be served without food, and the 11 p.m. last call will be lifted, allowing restaurants to once again stay open until 2 a.m. In addition, restaurants can operate at up 75% capacity if they self-certify that they are following COVID-19 mitigation requirements, up from the current 50% limit.

Gyms, theaters and other entertainment facilities can also begin operating at 75% capacity on April 4 under the new rules, which still require masking and social distancing.

“Hallelujah!” said Kirk Liddell, owner of the Log Cabin Restaurant outside Leola, after a reporter told him Monday about the rule changes. “This is going to be a huge help to us.”

Liddell said the timing of the rule changes could be a boon for the restaurant’s Easter brunch, which is one of its busiest Sundays of the year. While he was happy about being able to seat more customers, he is particularly pleased to be free of the frustration of not being able to serve alcohol without food. For example, it will once again be altogether OK for customers to have a drink while they wait for a table, or to linger over one as they decide on food.

“Some people would say, ‘Let me have a drink and I’ll decide what I’m going order later.’ And we’d say ‘No you have to get your order in because we can’t let you have a drink and have you walk out,’” he said.

As he changed rules for restaurants, Wolf also revised maximum occupancy limits for indoor events to allow for 25% of maximum occupancy, regardless of venue size, and maximum occupancy limits for outdoor events to allow for 50% of maximum occupancy, regardless of venue size. Maximum occupancy is permitted only if attendees and workers are able to comply with the 6-foot physical distancing requirement.

“Our case counts continue to go down, hospitalizations are declining, and the percent positivity rate gets lower every week – all very positive signs," Wolf said.  "The number of people getting vaccinated increases daily and we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel. It’s time to allow our restaurants, bars and other service businesses to get back to more normal operations.”

Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, said the rule changes were necessary to return some normalcy to the industry, especially as surrounding states eased their rules.

“While we celebrate the news today, we do so with caution realizing the virus is still here,” he said. “As the light at the end of the tunnel appears a little brighter today, it is our hope that with continued success from our country’s medical scientists and the rollout of the vaccine, that we’ll be out of this dark place soon.”

Time to staff up?

Local restaurant owners welcomed the announcement which came a day before the one-year anniversary of when the first COVID-19 restrictions went into effect.

“We’re happy with any increase to our volume that we can get. We’re definitely happy,” said Mick Owens, who is on the board of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association. ”It’s great. We can’t wait to get back to full occupancy, but this is a great step in the right direction.”

Owens, who owns three Mick’s All American Pubs and one Maize Mexican Cantina in Lancaster County, said the ability to seat customers at the bar is especially crucial, a factor that would functionally double capacity at his restaurants.

Owens said he will now have to work quickly to staff up in time to handle extra customers.

“It’s going to be quite a challenge, we’re having a lot of people getting staff right now,” he said.

In East Petersburg, Chancey’s Pub has been closed for nearly the entire year because owner Greg Bucher said it didn’t make sense to operate with the restrictions that were in place. Bucher thinks it will take until May to get staffed up enough to reopen, beginning with hiring a new head cook.

“I don’t see where people think there’s just chefs and cooks standing out there ready for all of us to go,” he said.

And once Chancey’s does reopen, Bucher says he’s not going to have any more patience for abiding by the kinds of restrictions that have hurt his business over the last year.  

“They can pretty much kiss everyone’s you-know-what, because once I open, I’m going nonstop -- and they can come after me, and they can do whatever they think they’re going to do,” he said.

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