On March 15, Gov. Tom Wolf announced some COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants, bars and other businesses will be relaxed, while maximum occupancies for indoor and outdoor gatherings will also increase.
Beginning April 4, indoor dining capacity will increase from 50 percent to 75 percent for restaurants that self-certify they are adhering to pandemic safety guidelines. The purchase of food will no longer be required for alcohol service, and bar service may resume. The midnight curfew for removing alcohol from tables will also be lifted.
Restaurants that do not self-certify can increase capacity from 25 percent to 50 percent of maximum occupancy. Requirements such as mask-wearing and maintaining 6 feet of distance between dining parties will remain in place. Other businesses such as gyms, theaters, malls and casinos can increase capacity to 75 percent of maximum occupancy.
While, it is a sign of progress for some Centre County dining establishments that have weathered the storm of the state’s pandemic closing and reopening yoyo, there are still challenges.
Curtis Shulman, director of operations for Hotel State College, which includes The Corner Room, the Allen Street Grill, Zeno’s, Bill Pickle’s Tap Room, The Basement Nightclub and Chumley’s, said each of these establishments will be affected differently.
“It depends on the location if it helps us financially,” Shulman said. “I think it is a big step in the right direction emotionally for the industry. It feels good as an operator to have a little bit of ability to find creative ways to make money. The increase to 75 percent capacity really doesn’t help many people, because we still have to enforce the social distancing guidelines. So, for example, we couldn’t even hit 50 percent, so the increase to 75 doesn’t change how many people we can serve.
“The elements of adding bar seating adds a component where we can touch guests differently. The ability to stay open later is a big deal because those are our big money hours and the ability to not require food just creates a better environment for our customers. Those changes make locations like Zeno’s, Pickles — and we will be able to open Chumley’s — those bar-centric areas will drastically improve, but by no means does this put us out of the woodwork in terms of being able to operate profitably.”
The company still has some full-time employees who have been unable to return to work because they have not had enough business to bring them back into the fold as of yet, Shulman said. It has been difficult financially and emotionally for employees.
“That is the human element that we are really pushing to get the bar seating back and those other components so we can bring them back and get them working again,” Shulman said. While the eased restrictions won’t enable them to recover fully, “this is a huge step in the right direction.”
Shulman said over the past few weeks the businesses have seen more of their older customers come in who have felt more confident because of vaccinations. He said that his staff is working hard to make people feel safe and comfortable while they are out. He added that Penn State students have been very cooperative about following masking and social distance guidelines when they come in and he feels that will continue.
“There is definitely a desire for people who want to be out, and I think that adding that component of comfort creates a better atmosphere. So that you can feel when you walk into the facility, people being less on edge,” Shulman said.
Further down College Avenue, The Waffle Shop recently reopened after being closed since the beginning of the pandemic. Owner Greg Kight reopened his Bellefonte Waffle Shop location last fall, but he chose to hold off on the downtown State College location. He moved to reopen downtown now because the COVID trends are heading in the right direction. It has helped employees who are struggling with the unemployment process get back to work.
“But I also think it was important for us to show the community that we are coming back, so we scaled back the amount of people who are working here now, but the response from our customers continues to be great,” Kight said. “They just keep saying, ‘We are so glad you are back at it Greg.’”
He said the move to 75 percent capacity is welcome news.
“Any news heading in the right direction is exciting for the restaurant industry as a whole,” Kight said. “It will allow us to get more people into our place and hope to get the staff back to making the money they are used to.”
He hopes that people continue to feel safer about going out.
“The biggest concern that I continue to have is, are the people ready, knowing that we are extra careful with our cleaning and our sanitizing and our masking and our social distancing, etc., to start going out? I think with more vaccines, people are feeling more and more comfortable,” Kight said.
In Philipsburg, We Are Inn owner Pat Romano said the move doesn’t allow for more customers at his establishment because of social distancing guidelines.
“You still have to maintain distancing, which I don’t know how that’s going to work out,” Romano said. “Most places, and owners and managers I’ve talked to in the area, even if you can let in 100 percent capacity, if you have to do 6-foot distancing, you still can’t open any more tables. There’s just not enough room to do that once you spread everyone out that far. It’s not super helpful. I just want things to be back to normal, which I think is a pretty common sentiment. We need it back to normal.”
Also in Philipsburg, over at Poppy’s Cafe, owner Jenny Horton said she feels customers are ready to open things back up all the way.
“For us, we’re not a bar. We don’t have alcohol. So we didn’t move bar stools or anything like that,” Horton said. “My personal opinion is I think they should open it all up. I think everybody’s ready. People are getting their stimulus check – bring it in. That’s where we’re at. We have an older clientele, and even they’re coming out. And some of them are coming in without a mask. That’s kind of huge. That’s saying a lot. They’re getting their shots, and they’re feeling invincible.”
(The Centers for Disease Control advises that, for now, those who are fully vaccinated should continue wearing masks in public places since they may still capable of transmitting the virus to others.)
Wolf also announced that maximum occupancy for indoor events and gatherings will increase from 15 percent to 25 percent and outdoor gatherings from 20 percent to 50 percent.
For both, attendees and workers must be able to comply with 6-foot distancing requirements.
The revised order does not impact temporary local ordinances — such as those in State College Borough and College, Ferguson and Patton townships — that place limits on the number of people who can attend gatherings at residences and on public property.
Wolf urged that residents and businesses continue to adhere to mask-wearing, distancing and other safety measures.
“We’ve come so far and now is not the time to stop the safety measures we have in place to protect ourselves, our families and our communities,” Wolf said. “Keep wearing a mask, social distancing, and, please, get vaccinated when it’s your turn.”
StateCollege.com editor Geoff Rushton and Gazette correspondent Teresa Mull contributed to this report.