Pennsylvania’s delay on relaxing the operating rules for restaurants and bars amid the coronavirus affects not only risks the economic health of those businesses in the Lehigh Valley and statewide, a panelist said Friday during a virtual legislative hearing among senate Democrats.
Brad Clemens of Clemens Food Group, which owns Hatfield meats that has a plant in Montgomery County, said the restrictions have had a profound affect on “noncommercial” businesses, such as college cafeterias, stadium food services, farmers and more.
“Pig prices are trading at all time lows,” said Clemens, senior vice president of Clemens Food Group,” blaming the fundamental rule of supply and demand, compounded with fewer employees. “And a hog just isn’t worth what a farmer needs it to be worth.”
The gravity of the situation struck lawmakers squarely, as they talked about possible solutions with restaurant owners and others. Those possible remedies included providing grants instead of loans, cutting sales and other taxes, and more.
A key theme emerged during the hearing seemed to be the lack of communication among officials of Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration regarding reasons behind cutting customer capacity for indoor seating from 50% to 25% and what’s in store moving forward to when cold weather will end outdoor dining.
Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, chairperson of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, Boscola asked Jeff Warner of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture if the Wolf administration has a plan for relaxing the restrictions as cooler weather comes.
“Without going into details,” Warner said, “I’ve been involved in conversations that are expressing a sense of urgency.”
Warner, who is director of the department’s Bureau of Food Safety and Laboratory Services, was unsure if better enforcement measures, such as stricter mask-wearing orders, would have helped stem the spikes in COVID 19 cases early on and enabled establishments to remain open at least at 50% capacity.
“What I do know is despite the challenges, restaurants continue to be life-sustaining businesses,” Warner said. He was the only state-agency official to speak; Boscola said she also asked for a representative from the Health and Community and Economic Development departments to appear, mostly to “get clarity” on the 25%-capacity limit.
Several Lehigh Valley owners recounted how that restriction has caused damage to their businesses, and that they need help soon.
“We’re in trouble,” said Rachel Griffith, owner of Bethlehem’s Apollo Grill. “This business is in trouble.”
Griffith, who said the state counts restaurant employees on its 25% capacity limit — adding it hurts businesses such as hers with large staffs more — also said a Wolf staffer told her the state was working on an update to its guidance.
“We need a plan now,” she said. “We also need relief. We can’t wait for the new year.”
Tony Iannelli, president and CEO the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, cited Griffith as among those in business still “fighting the fight.”
“It has not bee easy,” he said. I can’t express enough how critical the timing is [to expand business]. “It is time, to the best of our ability, to at least increase their ability to do business.”
Clemens and others also said patrons will continue to stay away so long as the 25% limit remains in place.
“I don’t think we can expect to see happy consumers until we make changes to the restrictions,” he said “Otherwise, consumers, restaurants, supply chains … collapse.”
Morning Call reporter Anthony Salamone can be reached at 610-820-6694 or [email protected]
To listen to a recording of Friday’s hearing, go to senatorboscola.com/policy online.
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