BETHLEHEM, Pa. (WLVT) — Before cold weather stops outdoor dining, one Lehigh Valley-based group is working to prevent the restaurant industry from taking another hit.
Steve DiDonato, a restaurant industry wine supplier, is calling for an ease of Covid-19 restaurant restrictions in Pennsylvania. He created an alliance of local restaurant industry groups — called the "Lehigh Valley Restaurant Owners Task Force” — to help advocate for restaurant owners.
"Our mission is very simple — save the restaurant industry in Pennsylvania," DiDonato told PBS39. "I see what restaurant owners are going through on a daily basis and it’s unbelievable. They've spent so much money to make their restaurants safe and to meet guidelines. There are restaurants that are down 70-80 percent in sales. We’re now about to enter the normally busiest time of year — October, November and December. Many won’t survive. Restaurants are the backbone to the economies of every major city and small town in Pennsylvania."
Pennsylvania’s bars and restaurants have been a focus of targeted coronavirus mitigation restrictions put in place by Gov. Tom Wolf's administration nearly six months ago. The governor has stated that the findings of contact tracers led him to crack down on the industry.
DiDonato says Wolf is cracking down too hard.
"They have liquor control board and health department agents going into restaurants at busy service times. They walk in and they’ve got a gun strapped on and they’re wearing body armor," said DiDonato. "They’re asking for health permits, sifting through receipts and measuring tables. We as an industry want a chance to sit down with legislators and talk. This is not political. This is about the business owners across Pennsylvania that need help, because they’re hurting."
Wolf imposed broad new statewide restrictions on bars, restaurants and large indoor gatherings in mid-July. Under the order, nightclubs must remain shut down, bars are closed unless they also offer dine-in meals — and large indoor gatherings like weddings are limited to 25 people.
At the start of the pandemic, bar and restaurant capacity limits were set at 50 percent. In July, Wolf reduced that to 25 percent.
"One of the biggest issues right now that is a point of pain for restaurant operators is the 25 percent capacity cap," said Mike Axiotis, president and CEO of Lehigh Valley Restaurant Group, a locally owned-and-operated franchisee of Red Robin. "Not all restaurants are created equal. When you have a full service restaurant you rely on eat-in or indoor dining. If you have a very small restaurant, but are only allowed 25 percent capacity, it can be devastating to that restaurant."
Axiotis is also the president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association’s Lehigh Valley chapter. The group, also part of the task force, will help petition lawmakers to change current restrictions. Axiotis believes restaurant owners can operate responsibly with a larger capacity.
"Ultimately, we want to get back to 50 percent. From there, we want to get back to 100 percent capacity, but have it with social distancing and barriers and other safety protocols in place," Axiotis told PBS39. "We feel that the 25 percent capacity cap is an arbitrary number passed down from the Wolf administration. We know that that governor is trying to keep Pennsylvanians safe, but we want to level the playing field. It doesn’t make sense that you can go into a grocery store, a Home Depot or Lowe’s — and have no capacity constraints at all. Meanwhile, restaurants have severe capacity restraints."
Bruce Haines, managing partner at the Historic Hotel Bethlehem, has also joined the task force. He says the hotel has spent thousands of dollars to keep customers safe.
"We took our bar and divided it into five booths separated by Plexiglas," Haines told PBS39. "We spent over $5,000 renovating the bar, and that includes adding woodwork so that the changes would fit our decor."
Haines believes restaurants owners need to be given the opportunity to show that they can operate safely at a greater capacity.
"Forty percent of our revenue at the hotel comes from weddings and bridal showers, meetings and things like that. At one point, my 240 person ballroom could host a 120 person wedding. We had the tables six feet a part and it was not crowded. We started to call back and rehire our banquet staff. Then, the rug got pulled out from under us," Haines explained. "He [Wolf] went to 25 people maximum…25 people in a 240 person ballroom. It’s not rational. We have a lot of restaurants here in the Lehigh Valley that know how to responsibly run a business and we shouldn’t be lumped in with those that don’t."
At a press briefing held on Monday, Aug. 31st, Gov. Wolf was asked if he had plans to relax restrictions as colder weather increasingly prevents outdoor seating. The governor replied by saying he is: "Focused on getting children back to school." He added: "Anything we do to take our eyes off that ball is going to be a problem.”
(1) The Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association is hosting a legislative roundtable on Tuesday, Sept. 1st at 11:00 a.m. The meeting will discuss a restaurant recovery grant program and related issues. Register online HERE to receive the Zoom call numbers.
(2) The Lehigh Valley Restaurant Owners Task Force is working to organize a public forum with local lawmakers in the coming weeks to push for an ease in restrictions. PBS39 will add a link to this page with more information when it becomes available.
Watch the video version of this story at 6:30 p.m. during PBS39 News Tonight on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020 or in the player below.