In Pa., indoor dining capacity will soon jump to 50%

Gov. Phil Murphy was slow to make a pronouncement about indoor dining over Labor Day weekend — he said that, anecdotally, the reports were good, but only time will tell if it led to any uptick in cases.

And Marilou Halvorsen, the head of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association, said it was helpful to those who already have outdoor dining going, but not so much for those who can only operate indoors. Many of those restaurants, she said, didn’t even open.

Then there was Tom Wolf, the governor of Pennsylvania. He announced his state — which has been at 25% since July — was moving to 50% on Sept. 21.

That’s the target number for restaurants and diners to have any chance moving forward. And for many, that’s not even enough.

Michele Siekerka.

Michele Siekerka, the head of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said recent surveys have indicated 75% works for most — but some establishments would need 100% capacity because their margins are so small.

Welcome to life in the reopening — where things are never enough when it comes to the bottom line. Or comparing your sector’s situation to other sectors or other states.

Halvorsen said her group is just looking for a chance. A chance to not only expand capacity — but a chance to prove restaurants can handle safety precautions as well as any sector outside of health care. The restaurant industry always has prided itself on sanitation and cleanliness, she said.

Her hope is that any uptick in cases will be properly vetted — and not just assumed to be coming from restaurants. She said it’s common for restaurants to be made the scapegoat when the rate of transmission goes up.

“But we know that there’s a lot of other industries open, and you can’t just blame the restaurants,” she said.

“I just hope that the contact tracers will be transparent, because what we’ve seen in other states … is that it is not restaurants that are creating a spike. There’s other industries that contribute. And, so, I just really hope that, you know, if the number goes up and it’s not automatically let’s shut down the restaurants.”

Wolf has seemingly reached that realization. It comes with a caveat. Restaurants that want to expand to 50% must self-certify that they comply with all public safety guidelines.

Wolf said Tuesday it’s the right balance between safety and the economy.

“While our aggressive and appropriate mitigation efforts have kept case counts low, we must continue to take important steps to protect public health and safety as we head into the fall,” he said. “At the same time, we must also support the retail food services industry that has struggled throughout this pandemic.”

Halvorsen can only hope this idea comes to New Jersey sooner rather than later, as Murphy has liked to say. The industry, she said, needs it.

“We will continue, but 25% as we move into the fall certainly is not going to be nearly enough,” she said. “It works well now for when you have outdoor dining, but, as I said, there’s some restaurants that chose not to open just because 25% wasn’t worth it.”

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