Restrictions meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 have made it a struggle for many Lancaster County restaurants to remain viable, let alone make any money.
Since the March 17 order from Gov. Tom Wolf that originally forced them to close, restaurant operations have been closely regulated, with rules detailing how tables need to be arranged, what kind of menus can be used, and how customers should be served ketchup and mustard.
Last month, Wolf relaxed an onerous rule limiting restaurants to only using 25% of their indoor seating capacity. Now, by doing a self-certification, that seating capacity can be boosted to 50%.
Yet many restaurant owners have been leery of signing up for the new program, which debut Sept. 21. As of Friday, only 273 of Lancaster County’s 720 restaurants had self-certified. The holdouts include Shady Maple Smorgasbord, the county’s largest restaurant.
Phil Weaver, co-president/co-CEO of Shady Maple, said he hasn’t signed up because he’s worried about the potential liability of formally attesting the restaurant will follow the many guidelines, and then getting in trouble if an employee’s mask slips or customers get too close in the buffet line.
“It’s not one page of regulations. It’s 20 to 30 pages of regulations,” Weaver said.
Instead of doing the self-certification, Weaver said, the 2,000-seat smorgasbord continues to focus on following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which include social distancing and cleaning. Shady Maple also enforces a policy requiring customers to don disposable gloves for every visit to the buffet line.
Weaver said those measures are what have allowed the smorgasbord to operate safely, not capacity limits, which he said he doesn't closely track. Yet if he can understand more about the self-certification program, Weaver said, he might eventually sign up.
“I'm not saying yes or no. At this point in time, I didn’t do it,” he said.
John Longstreet, president and CEO of The Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, said he understands such reluctance, saying restaurant owners have felt singled out during the pandemic because of shifting state guidelines from the Wolf administration.
When the self-certification program initially included a discussion of possible criminal penalties, Longstreet said, some restaurant owners were alarmed, even though the state has since clarified that the program wouldn’t open them up to any additional scrutiny or sanctions.
“They have earned the distrust of the industry because they’ve jerked them around so much through this with no evidence to show restaurants have anything to do with the problem,” he said.
But such concerns aren’t universal.
Al Duncan, CEO of Thomas E. Strauss Inc., which owns and operates of Miller’s Smorgasbord in Ronks and Smokehouse BBQ & Brews in Bird-in-Hand, said he didn’t have any qualms about the program, and signed up right away.
“It doesn’t require us to do anything differently than what we have been doing,” said Duncan, noting that Miller’s, with a roughly 500-seat capacity, continues to feature the buffet and has been able to boost capacity to nearly 200.
While saying “50 is better than 25,” Duncan noted the new limit still hurts restaurants.
“It’s still not near enough for a business to be financially successful,” he said. “You don't build a facility to run it half full.”