Shady Maple "touch-less" buffet

A photo from July 31, 2020, shows around Shady Maple Smorgasbord reminding customers to social distance. 

With capacity limits and social distancing requirements being lifted at the end of the month, the battered restaurant industry will finally reach some of the light at the end of a long COVID-19 tunnel.

Yet the persistence of the masking requirement coupled with an extremely tight labor market means many restaurants still won’t be out of the dark once those restrictions lapse May 31.

“Unless I can get more help, it’s not going to really do anything for me,” said Phil Weaver, co-president/co-CEO of Shady Maple, which includes a roughly 2,000-seat smorgasbord. “I’m still going to have to limit seating.”

Like many other restaurants, Weaver said he hasn’t been able to hire nearly enough employees to operate normally, a scarcity he attributes to generous unemployment benefits and people leaving the industry during the pandemic. That labor problem blunts the good news of Gov. Tom Wolf’s Tuesday announcement that capacity limits and social distancing requirements will be dropped May 31. Wolf said the masking requirement for employees and non-seated customers remains in effect until 70% of Pennsylvania adults are vaccinated.

Sean Cavanaugh, an owner of John J. Jeffries and Double C restaurants in Lancaster, said he’s given up even trying to hire new employees, saying he relies on longtime employees who have stuck with him.

“If we start a dishwasher at $15 (an hour), it’s not even enough to generate interest,” he said.

Yet he welcomed the Wolf’s lifting of capacity limits and social distancing requirements, saying “any step forward is good news.”

One benefit, Cavanaugh said, will be the option to have customers in one dining area, instead of having to spread them out, which creates more running around for staff. While that will make it easier on employees, it won’t change what Cavanaugh says is their biggest gripe: having to wear a mask.

“Most of the customers are vaccinated, all of the staff is vaccinated, so what is the mask really doing at this point,” he said.

Al Duncan, CEO of Thomas E. Strauss Inc., which owns and operates Miller’s Smorgasbord in Ronks and Smokehouse BBQ & Brews in Bird-in-Hand, said a mask mandate is a deterrent for both employees and customers, especially since he says more restaurants don’t enforce the rule.

“The mandatory part is a deterrent for people who have to work and wear a mask all day. And it’s confusing to the public because you have so many non-compliant places anyhow,” he said.

‘That means a lot’

While the May 31 rule change won’t put everything back to normal, it will move the needle enough to make a huge difference for some restaurateurs who have struggled to stay afloat.

“Nice,” said Wayne Pagan, an owner of Catalina’s on Orange in Lancaster, after a reporter told him Tuesday about the rule changes. “That’s definitely a great thing to hear. A great thing to hear.”

Pagan said the change would allow the bar and restaurant he owns with his brother, Dennis, to open during the whole week, not just as a night club on weekends.

“That’s frickin’ amazing,” said Dean Oberholtzer, who is an owner of three Lancaster city restaurants: Belvedere Inn, C’est La Vie and Josephines Downtown.

“That means a lot. If they’re getting rid of all the restrictions, we can increase our seating capacity, the bars can once again function as normal and we can start doing the numbers that we were doing in the past, because we haven't really been able to get close to that,” he said.

The latest change follows the April 4 loosening of the more onerous rules for restaurants, which before then required food to be served with alcohol, prohibited bar seating, and made “last call” 11 p.m. instead of 2 a.m.Before then, there was also a 50% capacity limit.

John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, welcomed Wolf’s Tuesday announcement, even as he warned that some of the economic damage for restaurants might not be reversible.

“Over the last year, business owners and employees have adhered to the strictest standards to protect guests and each other. The definitive timeline will allow owners and operators time to plan, but for far too many businesses who shuttered over the last few months, this announcement is too late,” he said in a statement issued by the association.

Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, echoed the call for continued state support of the industry.

“Pennsylvania’s small business taverns and licensed restaurants are certainly ready for this change as the past 14 months have been some of the worst in industry history,” he said. “But now the time has come in which we can move into a full recovery mode. It’s time to make the comeback greater than the set back.”

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