As of Tuesday afternoon, 278 of Lancaster County’s 720 restaurants had completed the self-certification process that allows them, under state rules, to offer indoor dining at 50% seating capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic (an increase from 25% capacity). “The holdouts include Shady Maple Smorgasbord, the county’s largest restaurant,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Chad Umble reported in an article that appeared in the Sunday LNP. Some restaurants are investing in outdoor heaters, fire pits and tents to extend the outdoor dining season into the colder months.
The restaurant business is tough even when times are good.
These are not those times.
If restaurant owners are leery of working with the state — as Shady Maple co-president and co-CEO Phil Weaver indicated he is — we understand that.
The administration of Gov. Tom Wolf didn’t exactly make things easy for restaurants and other businesses in the early months of the pandemic. Some of the confusion had to do with a kind of fog of war — decisions had to be made quickly in the face of an unprecedented health crisis. But some of the confusion was caused by the Wolf administration’s changing guidelines and lack of transparency and clarity.
The self-certification program, however, seems to us to be a fairly straightforward process.
It requires the completion of a one-page online form. Participation is voluntary. It’s free. It does not “impose additional obligations or result in additional inspections,” according to the state website. It merely asks business operators to self-certify that they are complying with state and federal health and business guidelines to keep customers safe from COVID-19. Restaurants that self-certify may increase their occupancy to 50%.
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, told Umble that he signed up for the program without any qualms.
“It doesn’t require us to do anything differently than what we have been doing,” Duncan said.
But John Longstreet, president and CEO of The Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, told Umble that some restaurant owners were alarmed by early discussion of criminal penalties for restaurants that didn’t follow the self-certification rules.
We’re relieved the state has clarified that there will be no such sanctions.
Longstreet said he understands the reluctance of restaurant owners to participate because they have felt singled out and “jerked” around by the Wolf administration. He said the administration has “earned the distrust of the industry.”
The reality is that restaurants have unique challenges that must be addressed in a pandemic in which a lethal virus can be most easily transmitted in enclosed spaces.
Wearing masks can reduce transmission of the novel coronavirus. But masks have to be removed to eat. So social distancing is imperative. And maintaining distances of at least 6 feet between people from different households isn’t always easy in a restaurant.
Which is why some local restaurants, like Lucky Dog Cafe in Manor Township, are trying to extend the outdoor dining season.
And which is why the Wolf administration has set capacity limits in restaurants.
State House Republicans tried Tuesday to override Wolf’s veto of a bill that would have enabled all restaurants to operate at least at 50% capacity. As Stephen Caruso of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star reported, the vote was close, but failed.
We wish things were easier now for restaurant operators. But allowing crowded bars and restaurants simply would not be safe.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released last month found that adults with confirmed COVID-19 “were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant” — in the 14 days before becoming ill — than were those with negative test results.
“Reports of exposures in restaurants have been linked to air circulation,” the study noted. “Direction, ventilation, and intensity of airflow might affect virus transmission, even if social distancing measures and mask use are implemented according to current guidance. Masks cannot be effectively worn while eating and drinking, whereas shopping and numerous other indoor activities do not preclude mask use.”
Which is not to say that eating at a restaurant has to be unsafe.
What this study indicates is that capacity limits and increased ventilation should decrease the risks.
So George Robb, owner of the Lucky Dog Cafe, was smart to create an outdoor dining space in the parking lot of his neighborhood bar and grill, and equip it with outdoor heaters.
Likewise, Leigh Lindsay, an owner of Zoetropolis, a downtown Lancaster restaurant, movie theater and distillery, is smart to serve customers either in the facility’s courtyard or inside, with its garage doors open to allow for better air flow.
The challenges facing restaurants are considerable, to be sure.
As Steinman Fellow Will Derry reported in the Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline, about 100,000 U.S. restaurants — or 1 in 6 — already have shuttered since the start of the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association.
“In Pennsylvania,” Derry reported, “as many as 30% of restaurants may close, according to the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, which based its prediction on a survey by Yelp, a website that publishes reviews of businesses.”
Here are other numbers that must be considered: More than 220,000 Americans — including 8,533 Pennsylvanians and 438 Lancaster County residents — had died of COVID-19 as of Tuesday. Medical experts fear the disease can cause lifelong health problems for some people. And COVID-19 cases are rising again in Pennsylvania, as in much of the United States.
The reality is that we’re still dealing with COVID-19 because the federal government didn’t get it under control. And too many people continue to scorn mask-wearing, a practice that, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, could prevent the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans in the final months of 2020.
So please mask up. And when you visit your favorite restaurant — whether for takeout or on-site dining — express your appreciation for the measures the owners and staff are taking to ensure your safety. If you can, tip generously.
Restaurants are an essential part of Lancaster County life and culture. We are rooting for restaurant owners and their many employees.