KENNETT SQUARE — Restaurants across Chester County are ready to increase their indoor dining services after nearly six months since Gov. Tom Wolf first imposed restrictions on the hospitality industry.

Wolf announced Tuesday that he is relaxing indoor dining capacity restrictions to 50 percent from 25 percent beginning Sept. 21 — the last day of summer.

“Sandra and I are so grateful for the support Portabellos and all restaurants and retail have received from this entire community,” said Brett Hulbert, who owns Portabellos of Kennett Square alongside his wife, Sandra Morris. “Kennett Borough officials were quick to initiate outdoor dining and many other programs to enable us to survive during these past months.”

The governor declared a disaster emergency to increase “support to state agencies” in response to the first two presumptive cases of COVID-19, also known as novel coronavirus, on March 6.

Wolf has consistently extended the order, and broadened its scope with new restrictions, ever since, while lifting others such as allowing gyms and barber shops reopen, after many months completely closed, earlier this summer.

The governor mandated a statewide shelter-in-place order upon all of 67 counties in the commonwealth on April 1.

On March 13, the governor closed all schools in Pennsylvania and asked hair salons and restaurants to suspend their indoor services by the next day.

Wolf then swiftly ordered that all restaurants and bars shut down their indoor services by 12:01 a.m. March 16 in Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, Allegheny and Bucks counties.

Wolf ordered the immediate shut down of all Pennsylvania businesses deemed “non-essential” on March 19.

In Chester County, the governor lifted the indoor dining ban, partially, on June 26 by allowing enterprises to reopen indoor services at 50 percent capacity. However, Wolf soon reduced indoor occupancy down to 25 percent from 50 percent on July 16, citing the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Concurrently, he prohibited all bar services.

Now that the governor is increasing capacity back up to 50 percent from 25 percent starting Sept. 21, he’s also adding new restrictions on these businesses simultaneously.

For instance, he’s enacting a prohibition on the sale of alcoholic beverages at 10 p.m. daily. Bars that don’t serve food must remain shut down, the governor said.

As previously reported, establishments that want to increase capacity must certify to the state that they are complying with all public health guidelines. Those restaurants will then appear in a searchable state database called “Open & Certified Pennsylvania," the Wolf administration said Tuesday.

“The governor’s recent announcement pertaining to the restaurant industry, while appearing to take positive steps toward reopening, continues to pile unnecessary restrictions on those who have worked overtime to be in compliance,” said Cheryl Kuhn, president and chief executive officer of the Southern Chester County Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1929. “Restrictions limiting indoor gatherings to 25 continues to prevent venues from returning to some sense of business normalcy, which is sorely needed. Last but not least, the two-week delay is adding insult to injury, and, at least a portion will not make it.”

“We recognize the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Pennsylvania’s small businesses, especially on our restaurants,” Wolf said Tuesday.

“I am very glad that our restaurants will have the opportunity to seat more diners indoors, especially with the end of the outdoor dining season on the horizon,” said Downingtown Mayor Phil Dague on Wednesday.

“I am confident that Downingtown's restaurants will make certain that a safe and comfortable dining experience will be had by all,” the mayor said. “We have been extremely fortunate here in Downingtown in that none of our wonderful eateries have had to close their doors permanently. They have worked hard during this pandemic and have really defied the odds. I believe that this is a testament to the quality of the establishments themselves and the loyal following that they have earned.”

In Kennett Square, Hulbert said, “It is encouraging to be moving forward to 50 percent capacity — especially as cooler temperatures arrive. As dining moves indoors, Portabellos will continue to meet — exceed — all state mandated guidelines for distancing and sanitation to ensure the safety of our guests.”

Hulbert added, “Thankfully, we have invested in our new location which provides us more space to spread out and a brand new state-of-the-art ventilation system with fresh air exchange. We do not feel we will be adversely impacted by the 10 p.m. last call, as many of our diners are finishing their meals at that time anyway.”

“As a new business we’ve faced some unexpected hurdles during our first year in operation, but continue to hold the safety of our customers and staff as a top priority,” said Dan Knabb of Be Here Brewing on Pennsylvania Avenue in Avondale. “We’ve been serving almost exclusively outdoors and will continue to encourage outdoor dining and takeout until we can determine a safe way to operate indoors.”

Be Here Brewing is the first and only brewpub in Avondale and opened its doors last November. The business offers a dozen handcrafted artisan beers, brewed on site, and freshly prepared sandwiches, flatbreads and salads.

“The Wolf administration’s decisions surrounding the (management) of the COVID-19 pandemic are data-driven, literature-based and follow established public health practices,” said Casey Smith on Wednesday. She is the communications director of the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development for the Wolf administration.

The death rate in Chester County from COVID-19 has hit approximately .066 percent of the population since the county government reported the first fatality in late March, as previously reported. At the end of August 352 deaths had been declared.

More than 95 percent of all reported deaths in Chester County have been senior citizens, with the majority of these deaths happening at assisted living facilities, including the state-run Southeastern Veterans Center of Spring City in East Vincent Township.

The first novel coronavirus death was reported in China's Hubei province last year on Nov. 17.

As for the sales ban on alcoholic beverages at 10 p.m. beginning Sept. 21, state spokeswoman Smith said the move is to “discourage congregating in a restaurant that provides alcohol” to mitigate the chance of COVID-19 exposure especially among young adults.

Smith said, “Also, it's important to note that, according to the most recent Longwoods International tracking study of American travelers, only 40 percent of Americans are comfortable dining in local restaurants. This mitigation effort is not only for public health and safety but also to provide consumer confidence in restaurants.”

Pennsylvania's restaurants in 2019 made an estimated $25.7 billion in sales and provided the Commonwealth with 582,800 jobs, representing 10 percent of employment within the state, according to the National Restaurant Association and the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association (PRLA). Between March and April this year, restaurant sales dropped down to $1.8 billion and 332,000 restaurant employees were either laid off or furloughed.

By May, 91 percent of restaurant operators had laid off or furloughed staff, the state and national hospitiality organizations said.

“A strong majority of Pennsylvania restaurant operators are not optimistic that their business will return to normal any time soon,” said the National Restaurant Association, in a COVID-19 restaurant impact survey released in May. “Eighty-six percent of restaurant operators say it is unlikely that their restaurant will be profitable within the next six months, under the assumption that there will be no additional relief packages from the federal government.”

John Longstreet, president and chief executive officers of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, continues to advocate for a complete reopening of the businesses he represents and in light of Wolf’s recent announcement on Tuesday to partially lift capacity restrictions on indoor dining facilities by Sept. 21.

“While we appreciate the governor’s step to return restaurant operations to 50 percent occupancy, the PRLA feels that this adjusted mandate will not properly restore our industry to the standards that were in place before July 15,” said John Longstreet, president and chief executive officers of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association (PRLA).

“In addition to restaurants current requirements for Pennsylvania’s mitigation standards, today's order now requires certification to affirm the safety standards already in place,” Longstreet said. “This is an undue burden on an industry struggling for survival.”

“The order lacks meaningful enforcement for business owners who have been defying mandates, but continues to add more restrictions for those operators who have consistently tried to comply all along,” Longstreet said Tuesday.

“The return to 50 percent occupancy is welcome news to the industry,” Longstreet said. “It’s something we’ve asked for repeatedly since July 15, but it is a hollow win.”

Longstreet said his organization continues to advocate for Pennsylvania House Bill 2513, which state lawmakers reported unanimously out of the Senate Law & Justice Committee Tuesday. He also supports several other legislative measures “that will truly assist the industry in navigating the pandemic, while maintaining the safety of both their guests and employees.”

Longstreet added, “The industry is still in a precarious position.”

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