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Pa. easing restrictions on restaurants, Gov. Wolf says

The loosened restrictions are set to go into effect on April 4. The city of Philadelphia did not announce any changes.

With Philadelphia restaurants open to limited indoor dining, bartender/server Christa McCann (left) serves guests at Gallo’s Seafood restaurant on Roosevelt Boulevard in January.
With Philadelphia restaurants open to limited indoor dining, bartender/server Christa McCann (left) serves guests at Gallo’s Seafood restaurant on Roosevelt Boulevard in January.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

The idea of drinks at a bar on Easter Sunday is a real possibility throughout much of Pennsylvania, as Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday announced an easing of restrictions at restaurants outside of Philadelphia.

Effective April 4, Wolf said, restaurants will be allowed to seat up to 75% of their capacity indoors, serve alcohol without food, resume bar service (with barriers to create social distancing), and move last call past 11 p.m., while gyms, casinos, and other entertainment venues can also increase their capacities to 75%.

Philadelphia officials on Monday, however, did not budge on restrictions in place for establishments in the city. “We will review any new changes to statewide restrictions issued by the governor and determine what makes sense for Philadelphia based on our local conditions,” a city spokesperson said. “As has been the case throughout the pandemic, Philadelphia is able to remain more restrictive than the state when it comes to COVID-19 mitigation guidance.”

Occupancy in New Jersey, where indoor dining capacity is 35%, will increase to 50% effective Friday, March 19. Amusement venues, gyms, barber shops, salons, and related businesses are covered by Gov. Phil Murphy’s order.

Pennsylvania’s loosened restrictions will mark the most lenient rules the Commonwealth’s businesses have seen since the coronavirus pandemic began a year ago. The news comes as vaccinations are ramping up and people across the region have begun to feel hopeful about the future.

The increase from 50% to 75% of capacity for restaurants that self-certify their hygiene standards won’t make a huge difference to the bottom line, said Jim Fris, the chief executive of the company that operates P.J. Whelihan’s, the Pour House, and other restaurants.

“The real plus is the bar. Some people don’t go out because there is no bar. You can’t go to one while you wait for a table. You have to go sit in your car,” Fris said, noting the end of the mandate that food must be served with drinks will revive happy hours. Not having to close at 11 p.m. will mean that customers can see the end of a West Coast Phillies game, he said. Most liquor licenses call for a 2 a.m. closing.

Fris was involved with the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association’s lobbying efforts; the PRLA as well as the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association cheered the news. Bars are the lifeblood of many businesses.

“It’s about time,” said Jeff Power, executive chef at Dettera, a bar-restaurant in Ambler. “We’re excited to have our bar back in any capacity.”

“Could not be happier,” said Kim Strengari, who co-owns Gypsy Saloon and Southern Cross Kitchen in Conshohocken, plus a catering company. Strengari said she suspected that as time passed, restaurants would start to push back at restrictions.

Asked for his reaction by text message, Luis Marin — who owns Los Sarapes locations in Horsham and Chalfont, and El Sarape in Blue Bell — replied simply with a cheery thumbs-up emoji.

Wolf, in a statement, cited dropping case counts, hospitalizations, and percent positivity rates.

“The number of people getting vaccinated increases daily and we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel,” Wolf said. “It’s time to allow our restaurants, bars, and other service businesses to get back to more normal operations.”

On April 4, personal services facilities, gyms, and entertainment venues, including casinos, theaters, and malls, may increase their capacities as well, to 75% of capacity, up from 50%, Wolf said.

Starting the same day, indoor events may be held with 25% of maximum occupancy, up from 15%, regardless of venue size, as long as people can keep a six-foot distance from each other, he said. Meanwhile, outdoor events can be attended by 50% of a space’s maximum occupancy, up from 20%, he added, also regardless of venue size and as long people can be socially distant.

Establishments must continue to require mask-wearing, stringent cleaning, and other health measures, Wolf said, and restaurants must self-certify that they are doing so in order to increase capacity. Restaurants that do not self-certify can serve at 50% capacity.

Since Jan. 4, Pennsylvania’s self-certified restaurants have been permitted to seat up to 50% of their capacity indoors, while non-self-certified ones could seat 25%. Establishments can only serve alcohol with a meal and last call can’t be later than 11 p.m.

Not included in Monday’s announcement are restaurants in Philadelphia, which abide by the city’s regulations that mandate 50% of capacity indoors if they meet ventilation criteria and 25% if they don’t.