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A COVID Winter: Cumberland County restaurants try to survive and adapt as virus cases grow, temperatures drop and funding stalls

From the A COVID Winter: Cumberland County businesses, residents prepare to navigate a pandemic as cold weather closes in series
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With colder weather on the way, rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in Cumberland County and the possibility of stricter COVID-19 restrictions for indoor dining, local restaurants and bars continue to adapt to survive.

Pennsylvania broke its record of single-day cases on Nov. 19, and Philadelphia announced restrictions including a ban on indoor dining and further constraints on take out, delivery and outdoor dining starting Nov. 20.

Gov. Tom Wolf and Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine continue to say that a return to last spring’s early pandemic restrictions that closed some businesses will not return.

When the Wolf Administration initially restricted indoor dining at restaurants and bars in March, Thea in Lower Allen Township served takeout meals, chef and owner AnnMarie Nelms said.

When the restaurant prepared to reopen to indoor dining, Nelms said she reached out to those who could help her best protect her employees and customers.

Janitorial and industrial supply distributor Americhem International Inc., based in Middletown, showed the restaurant additional cleaning procedures catered to the virus. Nelms said the restaurant has since used a medical-grade sprayer to sanitize the building three times a day, especially high-touch surfaces. The spray also serves as an air neutralizer.

In addition to increasing cleaning procedures, Nelms said she provides elderberry gummies and juice to her employees to help keep them healthy and makes sure to feed them well. All staff wear masks at work, and if they are feeling unwell, Nelms said they are not allowed to come into work.

Tom and Penny Petsinis, owners of the Rustic Tavern at 823 Newville Road in Carlisle, said they always maintained a clean restaurant, but they make sure to constantly disinfect high-touch surfaces during the pandemic. All condiments are now in disposable packets. Both adjustments have led to increased spending on cleaning and paper products.

Even with a decrease in business, the Petsinis said they try to make sure all of their employees get the hours they need. December is typically one of the restaurant’s busiest months, but his year they said they will be lucky to have half of that amount of that business.

With the recent rise in COVID cases in Cumberland County, Petsinis said scheduled luncheons, dinners and parties of 20 or more have now been canceled. Takeout remains popular, and heaters have been added outside if customers are uncomfortable with indoor dining, he said.

“We are lucky to have good enough clientele to keep the doors open,” Petsinis said.

Praising her customers for supporting her through recent months, Nelms said she feels very fortunate because Thea is located in the Arcona neighborhood development and that yields many regular customers.

Thea’s indoor seating, like all restaurants, is at 50% capacity, and all tables are spaced at least six feet apart, Nelms said. With the increasing COVID case numbers, parties will now be limited to eight people, she said.

Nelms adapted her business to the challenges of limited capacity with the use of bubble tents, which act as private rooms outdoors. The smaller tents seat four and the larger bubbles seat six. Nelms said she expects to have 10 or 11 tents up in the coming week.

“Everybody just fell in love with them and thought they were so cool, and they’re booked. People are buying their own so that they can have their weekly reservation, and then they told me that I could use them for my other guests,” Nelms said.

Rebecca Yearick, downtown program services manager for the Cumberland County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities, said the businesses she works with have worked through the pandemic so far by rethinking and changing their business models.

Yearick assists downtown organizations, boroughs, businesses and property owners in Carlisle, Mechanicsburg, Mount Holly Springs and Lemoyne and she said she has helped some of the businesses she works with expand. Businesses have started to provide delivery services, market online and on social media, transition to outdoor dining, and expand products or services, Yearick said.

While Nelms and Tom and Penny Petsinis praised the community for their support throughout the pandemic, they called for more government aid.

“I have stayed afloat because I have great neighborhood people that order from me often, but my friends and family own restaurants too and they have not gotten this,” Nelms said. “I don’t believe that the government has helped our industry enough, considering we’re the only ones under these crazy guidelines.”

The Petsinises said that they want everybody to follow COVID-19 regulations to “get things back to normal” in the spring. They used Payment Protection Program money provided by the federal government to keep their employees employed at the start of the pandemic, but with additional costs and higher prices for supplies while under restrictions, they will need more help from the government.

Certain products are difficult to get access to right now, including certain liquors and spices, so Rustic Tavern’s menu has been more limited than usual. Meat, seafood and produce are particularly expensive right now, Tom Petsinis added.

As executive director at the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage Association, Chuck Moran represents small business taverns, bars, licensed restaurants and lounges.

Throughout the pandemic Moran said he has tried to educate businesses on the specifics of COVID-19 guidelines, recommended cleaning procedures and what to do if staff members test positive. He also connects businesses with the association’s preferred vendors, who provide discounts on products or services.

Moran said he often hears from his members that they wish the federal government would reenact measures like the Paycheck Protection Program and would hope to see it in another stimulus package, he said.

Despite these efforts, Moran said a lot more needs to happen at state and federal levels and that more grant money is needed right now because businesses don’t need any more loans.

“Most of your restaurant owners, tavern owners, I mean they’re not looking for a handout,” Moran said. “They’d much rather fully operate, but they understand right now with the virus that it’s contagious, and these restrictions are there for public health reasons.”

In August, the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage Association conducted an internal survey of 100 of its members, which had a 10% margin of error. The poll showed that each establishment lost 13 employees as a result of COVID-19 orders. The association’s average member has 16 employees, Moran said.

Seventy percent of businesses surveyed said that without government assistance they would not remain open past 2021. At the time, 13% of respondents already said their business would remain closed. Thirty-seven businesses said that they were unable to pay rent, 36% were unable to pay utilities, and 35% were unable to make loan payments.

Whether establishments serve alcohol or not, they seem to be taking COVID-19 seriously, Moran said, citing data by the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement showing low numbers of COVID-19 related citations in the restaurant and food service industry. There is some level of risk for any indoor activity in a group setting, but the industry has worked very hard to follow the rules, Moran said.

Restaurants and bars initially stepped up to flatten the curve during the two-week shutdown in March, Moran said. They did so once again on July 5 by reducing capacity after months of leeway allowed by the yellow phase so kids could go back to school, he said.

“They may not have been happy, but they [stepped up] because they knew it was what was good for public health, and they sacrificed a lot,” Moran said. “But right now, I think a lot of people in the industry feel like they’re the ones being sacrificed, because there’s been no financial help coming for this industry.”

As businesses lose outdoor seating to colder weather, they will be dependent on primarily takeout, Moran said. He expects that many restaurants will close for a month in the winter, especially if there are additional restrictions like those recently enacted in Philadelphia.

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“Most of your restaurant owners, tavern owners, I mean they’re not looking for a handout. They’d much rather fully operate, but they understand right now with the virus that it’s contagious, and these restrictions are there for public health reasons.” — Church Moran, executive director at the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage Association

“Most of your restaurant owners, tavern owners, I mean they're not looking for a handout. They'd much rather fully operate, but they understand right now with the virus that it's contagious, and these restrictions are there for public health reasons."

— Church Moran, executive director at the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage Association


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