HARRISBURG – The restaurant industry expects that one in five restaurants that existed before the pandemic won’t reopen once business restrictions are lifted. Plus, the longer it takes for restrictions to relax, the worse that economic toll is going to be.

“The frustration for our members is that we were the first to close and we’re going to be the last to reopen, and we have experience dealing with food safety and sanitation,” said Melissa Bova, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.

The restaurant industry she said, has been hit harder than other sectors of the economy due to the state’s shutdown orders, which barred restaurants from serving food for in-restaurant dining.

In April, when the state’s total unemployment rate hit 15.1%, 323,000 workers lost jobs in the leisure and hospitality industries, state data shows.

The national rate was 14.7% in April. 

Pennsylvania’s highest unemployment rate was 12.7% in 1983, according to federal data back to 1976 under the same methodology.

“This is not going to be a matter of flipping a switch,” Bova said.

Restaurants probably won’t be allowed to reopen at full occupancy even in the green phase, which means less opportunity to try to make up for the revenue lost during the shutdown, she said.

It’s not clear how quickly customers are going to return.

The governor has relaxed business restrictions in 49 of the states’ 67 counties, but even in areas in the yellow phase of the state’s reopening strategy, eat-in dining in restaurants is prohibited.

Convincing patrons that they can go back to dine-in restaurants safely may be one of the biggest hurdles that restaurants are going to have to clear, once the state gives them the thumbs up to resume, Bova said.

Pennsylvania is one of just 11 states that hasn’t moved to allow some type of eat-in option for residents. The other states that still bar eating at restaurants include Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota and Vermont.

West Virginia has allowed outdoor dining since early May and restaurants in that state were given the green light to begin serving customers inside on Thursday. Restaurants are not allowed to operate at more than 50% their normal occupancy. 

Ohio also moved to allow inside dining on Thursday, limiting dining groups to no more than 10 per table. 

Delaware allowed outside dining on Friday and will begin allowing inside dining on June 1.

Bova said that while some larger chains may move to make greater use of technology to allow customers to place their orders without directly interacting with wait staff, few smaller restaurants will have the financial wherewithal to make that kind of investment, especially after they’ve been closed for 10 weeks.

Instead, restaurants may be doing things such as beginning to use disposable menus.

Patrons will also likely begin to see more widespread use of protective barriers between tables.

“That could be a viable option” as restaurants try to provide protection for customers, she said.

Legislative remedies

The state House last week passed bills that would relax restrictions on restaurants. One bill, House Bill 2506, would allow outside dining statewide. The other, HB 2513 would allow eat-in dining in those counties that have been moved into the state’s yellow reopening phase.

The outdoor dining bill, which passed 133-69, attracted more bipartisan support than HB 2513, which passed 117-85.

Both measures were sponsored by state Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming. State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, had joined Everett in announcing plans for the bills.

Yaw on Friday said he expects the Senate will take up the bills now that they’ve passed in the House.

Yaw said the state needs to act to help restaurants because the industry has far-reaching impact, not only in supporting the jobs of the people in the eateries but in all the businesses that supply them.

If there isn’t movement to help restaurants, “we’re going to see a lot of them, that, unfortunately, are going to close,” he said.

Yaw said that even when the restaurants are allowed to reopen, the regulations for social distancing in the facilities will be significant in determining whether restaurants survive.

Restaurants are set up under business plans based on the number of tables they have and it will be difficult to adjust if the eateries are expected to serve a reduced number of customers for a prolonged period of time, he said.

Still, he said the state ought to give restaurateurs the opportunity to try to resume serving customers for eat-in dining.

“They will still have challenges,” he said. 

“We need to let them get started.”

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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