SAYRE, Pa. — A normal Friday night was unfolding in a Bradford County brewery, and that’s what felt so strange. Families sat at high-top tables, eating tacos and sipping from flights of craft beer. Waitresses moved in and out of the kitchen like bees in a hive.
Some customers wore masks when they entered Blue Stone Brewing in Sayre, but they didn’t have to keep them on — and none did. Dine-in eating and a loosening of the mask requirements were among the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions lifted Friday morning in 18 Pennsylvania counties that moved from the “yellow” phase to “green.”
“It’s nice to have a meal that’s not in a Styrofoam container,” said Wayne Sinsabaugh, 42, who sat at the bar with his wife.
Bars and restaurants are now allowed to serve food inside as long as they don’t exceed 50% capacity, and at Blue Stone, about two dozen customers were scattered both indoors and out. Owner Brady Liechty, 47, a high school business teacher in nearby Athens, rented a large tent and put additional chairs and seating outside to keep people spread apart.
“It feels great. It’s been going very well so far and very busy,” said Liechty. “People are glad to get back to real life.”
The urge for normalcy was so strong that Larry and Patti Stange drove about 80 miles north, from Lackawanna County, to drink a few beers there. Lackawanna, like Philadelphia, is still in Gov. Tom Wolf’s most restrictive “red” phase.
“It’s worth the 90-minute drive,” Larry Stange said.
Bradford, a mostly rural county of 60,323 approximately 175 miles north of Philadelphia, had 46 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and three deaths as of Friday night, among the state’s lowest counts. Four rural counties west of it also moved into the green phase, although Susquehanna County, on its eastern border, was still yellow, with 109 cases and 15 deaths. Sixteen additional counties will enter the green phase on June 5.
“As to what the future beyond green holds, at this point I think we’re all still looking at that," Wolf said earlier in the week.
State Sen. Gene Yaw, a Republican representing Bradford, Lycoming, Sullivan, Susquehanna, and Union Counties, said his constituents had grown more frustrated with the closures in recent weeks.
“The most important things for people seem to be barbershops and hair salons,” Yaw said. "It’s the simple things that people want to do again. "
Sayre — with 5,424 residents, the largest municipality in Bradford County — is unique because of its fluid border with New York. The region is known collectively as “The Valley.” There’s no bridge or creek to cross. Motorists simply pass under railroad tracks on Cayutta Avenue, into another state that remains in a more restrictive pandemic phase.
Brad Wilson owns bars in both states. A little more than a mile separates the two. On Friday, his Broad Street Pub in Waverly, N.Y., was closed. But Alliger’s House of Wings, his bar in Sayre, was open. Tables were spread out inside, and customers scanned a code to view the menu on their phones. Six cars in the parking lot had New York license plates.
“We’re anticipating a lot more of that,” Wilson said inside Alliger’s on Friday afternoon. “All of New York is closed as far as bars go.”
Patrick Ayres, mayor of Waverly, said there’s been an ebb and flow to the differing pandemic restrictions between the states. When Pennsylvania’s state-run liquor and wine stores were closed in the early days of the quarantine, New York saw an influx of customers. Now, it’s Pennsylvania’s turn.
“It cuts both ways," he said. "We had people driving up from Scranton just to buy booze.”
Waverly is in New York’s Tioga County, which has had 117 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and is in “phase two” of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s four-phase plan. That’s equivalent to Pennsylvania’s yellow phase, which allowed retail to open but still banned dine-in eating.
On opening day in Bradford, mundane things like a haircut felt a bit more special. Barber Rob Ermisch was glad to be wielding scissors again, after handling cruder tools during his pandemic hiatus.
“I worked at a slaughterhouse, some other jobs," said Ermisch, owner of The Barber Shop with Shear Perfection in East Towanda. “My last day cutting hair was March 28.”
A half-dozen men sat in the shop waiting for haircuts. About half of them wore masks.
“We should never have been closed in the first place,” one of Ermisch’s clients muttered.
At FWF Fitness in downtown Sayre, the wheels of a 5:30 p.m. spin class were turning quickly. About a half-dozen people were on the stationary bikes, sweating, bobbing up and down in their seats to heavy-metal music. One person still did the workout virtually, from home.
“A lot of our classes going forward will be hybrids like this,” said owner Nicole Golden.
Not everything opened in Bradford County. In Sayre and in Towanda, the county seat, small movie theaters run by the county’s regional arts council remained shuttered. The arts council is selling popcorn curbside for $10 a bag and is planning to produce “pop-up” drive-ins. Elaine Poost, its executive director, said the theaters are allowed to open, but they lacked clear guidelines on how to pull it off.
There are also no movies to show. Hollywood has pushed the release dates of major films off until the fall. However, the council is planning soft openings on the three movies still coming out this summer, including a Wonder Woman sequel.
“Without the content, the movies, it would cost us more money trying to stay open,” Poost said.
Along Pennsylvania’s scenic Route 6, which stretches east to west across the state’s northern tier, only a handful of customers sat inside the Marie Antoinette Inn & Bar in Wyalusing. The bar is perched atop the Marie Antoinette Scenic Overlook, with sweeping views of the French Azilum valley, site of an 18th-century French settlement.
Legend has it that as the French Revolution bore down on the aristocracy, that nation’s last queen was plotting her escape to safety here. “She must have taken too long packing her bags," said bar owner Patrick Caine, "because the peasants got her and chopped off her head.”
Today, the bar depends on the thousands of motorists and bikers who pull in every summer for a cheap draft of beer and the panorama.
“We needed this,” Caine said of Bradford County’s move to green. “I’m just grateful to be open.”