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Several Centre County Restaurants Flout Governor’s Order, Continue Indoor Dining Service

BELLEFONTE — On Dec. 12, the day new statewide measures went into effect to curb the spread of coronavirus, the dining room at URBN Flavourhaus on East Bishop Street was packed fuller than it had been in the weeks prior.

The eatery remained open for dine-in service in spite of Gov. Tom Wolf’s new mandates, which included a three-week prohibition on indoor dining at restaurants, put in place to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The orders came as the state continued to see a rise in cases and increased hospitalization due to the virus.

“With these measures in place, we hope to accomplish three goals: First, stop the devastating spread of COVID-19 in the commonwealth. Second, keep our hospitals and health care workers from becoming overwhelmed. And third, help Pennsylvanians get through the holiday season — and closer to a widely available vaccine — as safely as possible. This is a bridge to a better future in Pennsylvania,” Wolf said.

The diners at URBN Flavourhaus were there because of a social media post made by owners of the restaurant offering a 10% discount to patrons who chose to dine at either of its two locations (the other is downtown on West High Street). The post drew comments both in support of and in opposition to the decision by URBN Flavourhaus to stay open.

Many commenters criticized the eatery for being irresponsible and putting the safety of the community at risk.

Some said they would no longer support the business, such as one who said, “We were going to get takeout tonight and buy gift cards for others. You’ve lost our business forever with this decision. We’ll continue supporting other local businesses that are being responsible.”

Others said they would be making a trip in to support the restaurant.

“We were very, very cautious in the seating, making sure everything was wiped down, requiring people if they were up around the restaurant to wear mask,” owner Troy Nihart said.

With those efforts in place, Nihart said, “We were back to having a full house, back to where we were before the kids went home from the university.”

Nihart said they decided to stay open because he feels that people need to have a place to go and deserve to make their own choice about what they feel safe about.

He also said he feels indoor dining is safer to his staff than having customers pick up from the drive-thru, where customers don’t often wear masks.

URBN Flavorhaus owner Troy Nihart said the dining room was busy the weekend after new orders came down from Gov. Tom Wolf prohibiting indoor dining. The restaurant was one of a few Centre County businesses that decided to ignore the order and remain open. Photo by Vincent Corso | The Gazette

Most restaurants are following the governor’s orders.

The Borough of Bellefonte, on Dec. 6, adopted a masking ordinance that supports all of Wolf’s efforts during the pandemic.

It was hard for The Waffle Shop owner Greg Kight to close the long-time Bellefonte breakfast favorite again following Wolf’s new orders, after being closed for much of the year already.

He said he did so in an effort to keep his customers and staff safe. The Waffle Shop is offering take-out and delivery on the weekend during the three-week shut down.

Kight said he followed the process to get certified by the state in order to allow 50% capacity back in September.

Until then, he had left the Bellefonte Waffle Shop closed while other restaurants opened at 25% capacity earlier in the year. He has yet to open the downtown State College Waffle Shop since the pandemic started. Since he went through that process, he felt it was necessary for him to follow the order so as to not jeopardize his license.

While this year has been difficult for him and his staff, he said he wants his customers to know that he is doing everything he can “to aid in ending this virus.”

Robin Hood Brewing Co. said on Facebook that they pivoted to having food available for takeout, car-side delivery and pickup. All weekend long, they shared posts of customers bundled up for dine-outside service on their deck and said, “We appreciate all the continued support and hope to see you during the next three weeks.”

Meanwhile, some other establishments in the Bellefonte area decided to defy Wolf’s orders and kept their indoor tables open, such as Jim’s Italian Cuisine and The Hot Dog House.

On Facebook, Jim’s Italian Cuisine owner Jim Boscaino said his dining room would remain open, “because if I don’t, I may not be able to make it.”

Jeff Grimes has owned the The Hot Dog House for 35 years. He said the community has been supportive throughout the whole pandemic and he received a positive response from customers about staying open even after the new rules went into effect.

“I think most of our customers are tickled to death because we took a stand and are staying open, because they don’t think it is fair, with the big box stores staying open while small businesses are forced to close,” Grimes said. “It is not the government’s choice. It is the people’s choice. You don’t feel comfortable? Don’t come in. It’s just that simple.”

He said the staff takes precautions and they have sanitizing stations throughout the establishment, but noted, “in reality, there is only so much anyone can do.”

Grimes said he thought it was unfair that some businesses can remain open while others are forced to close.

“If the governor had said you got 72 hours to go get everything you need, then we are going to shut everything down for two weeks, I would have been all in, I would have said OK. But don’t tell me I have to close when Sheetz is up there and Rutter’s is up there and Walmart is there and you have thousands of people going in those places and you are telling me because of the 10 to 15 people in here, I am at a higher risk. I don’t buy that story,” said Grimes.

He said he was sad to see so many businesses close throughout the pandemic, and said his would have probably been one if they hadn’t been around for 35 years and had paid off the mortgage.

Nihart said he is not worried about any consequences for staying open from local authorities after talking to customers on Friday evening.

“One of my determining factors is that there are a lot of police officers that come in. So on Friday night, there was a group of state police officers and I asked them ‘What is local law enforcement — from the state’s side — position on this?’ They said they already made the determination and I guess they notified the governor’s office that they would not be enforcing. So that was part of our final decision to say that we were going to go for it and give people a choice,” Nihart said.

On the morning of Dec. 14, while a few diners sat in the dining area sipping coffee, two deputies from the Centre County Sheriff’s Office came in the door to order and pick up food.

“I would trade in my badge and gun before I enforced that,” said Deputy Mark Rusnak, referencing the governor’s orders.

However, both URBN Flavourhaus stores are located in Bellefonte Borough and are under the jurisdiction of the Bellefonte Police Department. As of Dec. 14, Nihart said he had not heard from Bellefonte Borough concerning the matter.

Borough Assistant Manager Don Holderman said it was in the borough police department’s authority to handle the issue.

He said if the borough determines that a restaurant is not following the order from the governor’s office, the first action from the department would be to issue a warning. If the situation continued, a citation could possibly be given.

The Hot Dog House is in Spring Township and Grimes said he doesn’t expect any contact from them.

“It’s possible, absolutely, and they could come, but I really don’t expect it because I think when it boils down to it, they are just like us,” said Grimes.

He said it is a shame the order forced people to have to make a choice to disobey.

“You are forcing good people to break the rules. We are law abiding citizens. We support our schools. We support our police departments. But you have to have customers in order to keep supporting them,” he said.

Spring Township Police Officer in Charge Ron Schall told The Gazette, “As with anything during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Spring Township Police will attempt to keep the township safe and educate any possible violators. If that does not work, the appropriate executive branch in its own enforcement powers would be notified of the violation.”

The governor’s office cited, among reasons for the restrictions, a study by JP Morgan that analyzed credit card spending of more than 30 million Chase cardholders and Johns Hopkins University’s case tracker, which found that higher restaurant spending in the state predicted a rise in new infections there three weeks later.

The governor also noted research from Stanford University found that restaurants accounted for a significant amount of new infections, while research from Yale University found that closing restaurants reduced fatality rates.

Eating at the counter of The Hot Dog House on Dec. 14, Gary and Bonnie Mayhew, of Bellefonte, said they felt safer going to restaurants than shopping at large grocery and department stores. They added that they felt it was unfair those places were able to stay open. They both said they would continuing supporting local small business.

“Why shut down a restaurant that clearly takes care of everything in here? Everything is clean and disinfected. I feel bad for them. They have to survive. It’s Christmas time. This is their busy time of the year. Why shut them down without the data to justify it?” Gary Mayhew said.

The couple was hit hard earlier in the year by the virus and understand how devastating it can be.

“I wear a mask to come in and a mask to go out. I feel safe. I already had my bout with COVID and so did she (referencing his wife) for five weeks. But I feel sorry for the businesses. I really do,” Mayhew said.

Nihart said he received some negative feedback over the decision to offer 10% off for in-person dining, but he feels the decision was misunderstood.

“It wasn’t that we were promoting or enticing somebody to come in here. It is a simple business decision based on what the cost of packaging is to send that food out,” Nihart said. “The other things is the third-party delivering services. We are probably, on most meals, losing money on what we deliver through GrubHub based on the advertising cost and everything it takes to get that food order out.”

Nihart said the community has organized a community petition on a website called Neighborsforliberty.com.

The petition asked the police departments of Centre County to issue a statement saying the police will not enforce Wolf’s orders.