Since governments launched restrictions in mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, restaurant and bar owners have faced confusion, adding a dose of aggravation to their uncertain futures.

Guidelines and rules have shifted as the state moved from red to yellow and to green phases of reopening. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases are surging nationally, with Pennsylvania seeing an uptick, though nothing close to what hot-spot states like Florida are experiencing.

A return to indoor dining, which was banned in the state for about three months, is the goal. It’s partly back in all counties but Philadelphia, but on Thursday, the Wolf administration ordered a slew of changes affecting the hospitality industry, including an occupancy cap of 25%, down from 50%.

Naturally, the industry is pushing back. We asked the administration to explain its rationale.

Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson, said the state understands the frustration of bar and restaurant owners who want to do all that they can to protect patrons, staff, and the community.

But “as long as we are seeing case counts increase and can point to the spread coming in part from people frequenting bars and restaurants and not wearing masks or practicing social distancing, we must put surgical mitigation plans into effect to stop the state and its residents and businesses from suffering a greater and extended loss of lives and livelihoods,” she said.

She said there is strong evidence to support the mitigation efforts from several different data points. “We are seeing an increase in cases in the 19-24 and 25-49 age demographics, repeating the cycle we saw at the beginning of the outbreak. Data from Allegheny County indicate increases in these demographics and that exposure happened at bars and restaurants, particularly where alcohol was involved."

Kensinger said Allegheny County reported that a large percentage of cases from June 20 to June 30 came from bars and restaurants. She said the state Health Department conducted analyses and investigations in other counties that point to bars and restaurants as a nexus for the spread of COVID-19.

She also cited better virus control in various parts of the Northeastern United States, including Philadelphia, which does not allow indoor dining and bars, as well as New York and New Jersey.

The CDC’s website lays out several different categories of risk, she said. The highest risk is on-site dining with both indoor and outdoor seating where seating capacity is not reduced and tables are not spread at least six feet apart. She said Pennsylvania’s mitigation efforts are following the CDC’s described lowest risk level, without completely curtailing indoor dining.

She also cited a Japanese study that looked at 3,184 cases of coronavirus disease and found that many COVID-19 clusters were associated with heavy breathing in close proximity, such as singing at karaoke parties, cheering at clubs, having conversations in bars, and exercising in gymnasiums.

This study led to national reporting suggesting that closing bars could help stop the virus’ spread of the virus. “We know that locations that are crowded, where social distancing is not possible, where you have to breathe heavily to be heard are among those that leave individuals most susceptible,” she said.