A grassroots group of suburban Philadelphia restaurant and bar owners, frustrated both by tightened government restrictions to slow the spread of coronavirus, as well as the sloppy habits of bad apples in their profession, are trying to get their voices heard in Harrisburg.

“We’re scapegoats,” said Rui Lucas, who owns Iron Abbey and naBrasa, side by side in Horsham. “The [Wolf administration’s] first thing is to shut down the restaurants. That is a blanket approach that the governor has taken. When there’s a crime in the neighborhood, it’s not right to arrest everyone in the whole neighborhood.”

On Thursday, the PA Restaurant Bar Covid Response Alliance, a new group of more than 100 owners, along with state representatives and officials with the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, met beneath tents outside Lucas’ restaurants just hours after new restrictions were imposed by state officials.

The goal: Enlist as many restaurateurs as they can to convince the administration that dining, particularly inside barrooms and dining rooms, is safer than it has been portrayed, and that tighter regulations are further squeezing the life out of them. Good operators who keep tables separated, insist upon masks among staff and patrons, and clean regularly should not be penalized, the organizers say.

Restaurant owners met with state representatives and the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association about COVID-19 restrictions outside of Iron Abbey in Horsham.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Restaurant owners met with state representatives and the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association about COVID-19 restrictions outside of Iron Abbey in Horsham.

“The bad operators,” said Lucas on his microphone as he panned the parking lot. He paused. “They’re not here.”

The meeting was called last week but took on greater urgency Wednesday, when Gov. Tom Wolf announced a slew of new restrictions at 3:30 p.m., effective at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. Among them: Indoor occupancy would be cut from 50% to 25% of capacity, and bars could not seat patrons who do not order food. “We got 8½ hours’ notice,” Lucas said. At a 50% occupancy cap, most restaurants can make no money, he continued. At 25%, “we are dead in the water.”

The Wolf administration is defending the moves by pointing to the fact that after declining, COVID-19 is again on the rise in Pennsylvania. “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,” said Lyndsay Kensinger, a Wolf spokesperson.

She pointed out that more young people are testing positive for COVID-19 and that data from Allegheny County indicate exposure happened at bars and at restaurants, particularly where alcohol was involved.

The hospitality industry has been hit brutally since mid-March, when the virus forced shutdowns and threw millions of people across the nation out of work. Restaurateurs say they want plans, not patchwork approaches. They want aid, beyond offerings that they believe have done little to help smaller operators.

“Everybody feels safe in my place,” said Phil Catagnus, who recently outfitted Double Visions, his Horsham go-go bar, with clear plastic dividers between the stools.

But Catagnus was fuming after a golf outing three weeks ago when he and friends stopped at a nearby bar for a bite to eat. When they asked for a table, he said, they were told: “No, just sit at the bar.” There was no separation. Meanwhile, both sides of the bar began filling with patrons, he said.

“Here, I just spent thousands of dollars putting Plexiglas next to all my stools and this is what I see?” he said. “It was business as usual, as [last] November or December. I got so upset. Why am I doing the right thing and then you get guys that don’t care and do whatever they want to collect a little bit of business for the next month until you shut us down as a whole?”

Melissa Bova, vice president of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, talks with restaurant owners about COVID-19 restrictions outside of Iron Abbey in Horsham.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Melissa Bova, vice president of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, talks with restaurant owners about COVID-19 restrictions outside of Iron Abbey in Horsham.

Catagnus said he called a state hotline to report the bar, which he declined to name. He did say that the bar was operating illegally as recently as last Friday.

A state police database showed about 6,500 coronavirus-related inspections since July 1, but no citations issued.

“We have to show the public that we’re safe,” said Catagnus. After he called the hotline, he vented to nearby restaurant and bar owners, including Lucas. A meeting last week drew 18 operators.

Then the restaurateurs pulled in the PRLA and elected officials, including the association’s Melissa Bova, U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, and local state House members Todd Stephens, Frank A. Farry, and Wendi Thomas.

Bova credited social distancing for stopping the spread of COVID, adding that “25% is just a number that does nothing other than allows them to pat themselves on the back.” In a call with the Wolf administration on Wednesday, Bova said, she mentioned that in the yellow phase, massage parlors, hair salons, and casinos had to close. She said she asked whether those businesses now needed to be reduced, but was told that they wouldn’t be. “There is no rhyme or reason” for restaurants to face the restrictions, she said.

Farry, who serves Bucks County, introduced a bill that would allow various reopenings on a county-by-county basis. The bill passed the House on Tuesday and is headed to the Senate.

Stephens, whose district is mainly in Eastern Montgomery County, said he is trying to gain support for a bill he co-introduced last month to create the Small Restaurant Grant Program, which would apply $250 million in federal funds to help restaurants with one to 10 locations in Pennsylvania that lost at least 50% of their monthly sales in April and May. The bill is now in the Commerce committee.

“If it’s just me and Phil yelling, we’re not going to get anywhere,” said Lucas. “But if we have three, four, five hundred of us saying the same thing, maybe someone will listen. We’re not standing quiet anymore.”