Restaurants in Pennsylvania were allowed on Sunday to resume serving customers at bars and selling alcohol without food, among other loosened restrictions, though the change didn’t immediately bring back customers.
Just one customer had ordered an alcoholic drink and nothing else by Sunday afternoon at the Encore Lounge at the Eden Resort & Suites in Lancaster, said Jill Bowen, the restaurant’s head bartender and supervisor.
Despite the slow start, Bowen said she believes the bar’s regulars will start returning by next weekend.
“Once we get the word out and everyone can start coming back and having fun sitting and relaxing with friends and families, I think we’ll have our crowd back eventually, but it’s going to take some time,” she said. “I know some people still are not comfortable going out, which is understandable, but we’re going to see them very soon, I think.”
Sunday's changes are among a series of COVID-19 related restrictions in Pennsylvania that were loosened or lifted by Gov. Tom Wolf on Sunday, along with eliminating an 11 p.m. last call and allowing restaurants to operate at 75% capacity rather than 50% if they self-certify that they are following mitigation requirements.
While easing the restrictions should provide some help for the restaurant, John Powl, a bartender at the Encore, said he believes things won’t truly feel like they’re back to normal until the social and communal advantages of sitting at a bar with friends can return.
“Hopefully that comes back, along with the consumption aspect as well,” he said.
The inability to serve alcohol without also selling food has “definitely” hurt the restaurant’s revenue stream, said Chuck Cobb, director of food and beverage, though an exact estimate was not available.
“It was devastating how much revenues have been lost, not only just food and beverage, but the hotel in general,” he said. “Now we’re seeing it come back. We’re headed in the right direction.”
Bar staff have had to explain to patrons that the rule was imposed by the state, not the restaurant, and have been selling random food like appetizers and hotdogs to get by with the mandate.
“It’s been very, very tough,” Bowen said. “A lot of our guests were frustrated that they couldn’t sit at the bar.”
Most customers were willing to purchase something else just to get their drinks, Powl said.
“Luckily for us, it’s alcohol, so they want it,” he said.
Cobb said some customers were able to use the mandate as an opportunity to explore the restaurant’s menu and order food they likely would not have ordered otherwise.
Other customers would simply order their drinks to go, or purchase food to comply with the mandate and then never eat it.
“They would just walk out before it even showed up,” Powl said. “They’d just throw their drink back and then leave.”
In some cases, customers would leave and purchase alcohol at a convenience store rather than order food to comply with the mandate, said Aaron Gochenaur, assistant general manager at the Eden.
“I’m sure we lost quite a few customers because of that,” he said.
The restaurant was busy on Sunday, though largely due to families coming in on Easter, not because of the mandate being loosened Gochenaur said.
Seats should be placed back at the bar at a safe social distance from one another sometime this week, Cobb said, though transparent barriers will remain in place.
Restaurant staff are now gearing up for Memorial Day weekend, when Cobb said he expects the bar to be filled with customers.
“We’re excited to start opening back fully,” he said.