Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday signed an order allowing restaurants to increase indoor occupancy to 50% beginning Monday amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The order requires on-site alcohol consumption end at 11 p.m. and a provision that all alcoholic beverages must be removed from patrons by midnight also will start Monday. This applies to both restaurants that do not self-certify to increase to 50 percent and those that choose to stay at 25 percent.
The order does not change requirements for the temporary sale of cocktails-to-go and take out alcohol sales from bars, restaurants or hotels with a liquor license, according to a news release from the governor's office.
“As we continue to take critical steps to continue to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, we also recognize that this pandemic has taken a significant toll on the food services industry, so we must balance public health and economic recovery,” Wolf said. “These orders give restaurants the ability to increase indoor occupancy safely while giving customers confidence when deciding to patronize a restaurant.”
Beginning Monday, restaurants will be able to begin submitting self-certification documents to the state's Open & Certified Pennsylvania database. ?
Restaurants that self-certify will appear in an Open & Certified Pennsylvania searchable online database of certified restaurants across the commonwealth and will receive Open & Certified Pennsylvania branded materials such as window clings and other signage, according to the release.
The status of restaurants’ certification will be available to the public through a searchable online database, including the following:
- A list of requirements contained in the current restaurant industry guidance and enforcement efforts;
- A statement that the owner has reviewed and agrees to follow these requirements;
- The business’ maximum indoor occupancy number based on the fire code; and
- A statement that the owner understands that the certification is subject to penalties for unsworn falsification to authorities.
The move comes after restaurant and groups urged legislation to lift some restrictions during the pandemic, including rules on alcohol purchases and capacity, to help keep the industry afloat. While outdoor dining has been allowed since early June and curbside alcohol sales were permitted in May, many restaurants owners say they are losing money by staying open.
Serving diners indoors has been restricted since the pandemic lockdown began almost six months ago. First prohibited completely, then limited to 25% occupancy on July 15 — that restriction was also paired with a requirement that all beverage sales must be accompanied by the purchase of a meal.
Reopening at 50% was "well thought out and sensible," but tightening restrictions to 25% came with little explanation since the state provided no evidence to suggest people are getting COVID-19 while inside bars and eateries, said John Longstreet, Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging president and CEO, earlier this month.
While the recent order is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough to return the industry to the standards in place before July 15, Longstreet said. "We urge the Governor’s office to take further action to ease the economic pain inflicted by operating restrictions," he said.
He said the PRLA is advocating for normal operating hours, eliminating the meal requirement and the ban on bar seating while allowing events to operate at 50% capacity and permitting restaurant capacity at a minimum of 50% capacity while removing the self-certification component that is not required by other industries.
"Restaurants have remained a target of state mandates, and despite adapting to rapid changes, many restaurants fail to meet even basic profit margins in this dire situation,"
Longstreet said the PRLA supports House Bill 2513, legislation introduced by state Rep. Garth D. Everett, R-84, of Lycoming County, which would allow for 50% indoor capacity without restrictions required by the Wolf administration. The bill likely will be voted by the Senate within the next week, Longstreet said.
Paul Bencivengo, Visit Bucks County president and COO, said his group has worked closely with restaurants in the county along with the PRLA to support a safe reopening.
"The expanded capacity is coming just in time — fall provides the perfect opportunity for locals to explore our backyard, the beautiful countryside, and to support the tourism and hospitality industry,” Bencivengo said.
“All restaurants need our patronage, but especially the independent restaurants and small businesses," he said. "They are part of the fabric that makes Bucks County unique and a great place to live, work, and play.”
Statewide, some 7,500 restaurants could close in the coming weeks if forced to operate at 25% capacity, the association warned earlier this summer.
While 26 states have no capacity and others have 50 percent capacity requirements, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and New Mexico are the only states to enact a 25 percent restriction, Longstreet said.
Any restaurant that wishes to ?increase to 50 percent indoor capacity on Sept. 21 must complete the online self-certification process by Oct. 5.
Restaurant owners with additional questions about the self-certification program can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Any health and safety violations from self-certified businesses will be handled first with warnings and education rather than fines or other penalties, the release said.
To help restaurants and taverns across the U.S., Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1, of Bucks, and his Democratic colleague, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, of Oregon, have pushed House Bill 7197, the Restaurant Act, and Senate Bill 4012.
Both would set aside $120 billion in revitalization funds until the end of the year to allow restaurants, bars and food trucks to stay in business by providing independent restaurants with revenue up to $1.5 million.
Longstreet said the funding is needed since the restaurant industry is perhaps the “hardest hit” of all the industries affected by the COVID-19 crisis nationwide and Pennsylvania was even more affected.
”We were the first to close down and we’re still not (fully) reopened in Pennsylvania yet and, consequently, restaurants need all the help they can get,” Longstreet said.