Pa. restaurants expand service while grappling with COVID-19 case increase

Looser restrictions are complicated by a rise in cases fueled in part by more infectious variants.

  • Brett Sholtis

(Lancaster) — A year into the coronavirus pandemic, items such as plexiglass protective barriers and greenhouse-like “pods” for outdoor dining in cold weather are a normal part of life at the Belvedere Inn.

Co-owner John Costanzo said he doesn’t mind those changes — he is working hard to keep people safe — but it frustrates him to see the restaurant’s two bars sitting empty.

He expects that to change soon. He talked to Transforming Health the week before the state’s April 4 loosening of pandemic restrictions, which allows people to sit at the bar and restaurants like the Belvedere to increase capacity.

Costanzo said he is hiring servers and barbacks, who help bartenders prepare and serve drinks. “That position has been on hold the past year. So we’re excited. We’re hoping for a good bar business.”

Kate Landis / WITF

A bartender makes a drink at The Belvedere Inn in Lancaster.

Restaurants like his still have to maintain a six-foot distance between groups, something that will limit capacity at the bar. He noted the Belvedere is certified by the state and rigorously follows COVID-19 guidelines. By following the rules, the bar, which can fit up to 20 people, will be limited to about 10.

However, as Costanzo prepares for a surge in business, he’s a bit nervous about the potential for another kind of surge. COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania are up more than 60 percent since the beginning of March. This trend comes after three months of declining numbers. Much of the U.S. is seeing a similar increase.

He listed some concerns: Restaurants operate at a 10 percent profit margin. His bar will be limited to 50 percent of its potential business. And he’s heard that, according to the National Restaurant Association, half of all restaurants may not survive the pandemic.

He said he knows the Belvedere will survive, but jobs are on the line. “We’re hoping, like everybody else, by summertime, we’ll be rocking and rolling.”

Kate Landis / WITF

Guests dine at El Serrano restaurant in Lancaster.

Across the city at El Serrano, owner Manuel Torres said the Peruvian restaurant is staying vigilant as new COVID-19 cases tick upward.

“What we want to do is continue the pattern we have now at least until the end of the year,” Torres said. “Because, we don’t know when it could come back.”

El Serrano has plenty of space, with a lot of natural separations between areas due to design elements like pillars and some of the Peruvian art that dots the restaurant. It has an outdoor courtyard for warm weather dining, and booths and tables are separated by plexiglass barriers.

Despite the innovations, Torres said he basically had to reinvent his business model. Torres was no fan of taking a beautifully-arranged dinner and tossing it into a Styrofoam container. But they made the switch. He pared down his supplies to make sure that nothing was going to waste. And like at the Belvedere, he had federal assistance to help him get through 2020.

He said he’s followed his father’s advice: “Save bread for May,” a Peruvian expression that basically means, ‘Save your money.’ That advice paid off. However, it would be hard to have to endure another round of restrictions.

“We are a busy restaurant, but to lose 60 percent of your sales, and then the bills don’t change, the bill comes, you know?” Torres said.

witf · Restaurants are hiring staff and expanding service, hoping COVID-19 doesn’t surge

 

To be clear, the state has not said it plans to re-introduce restrictions, though Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said the department is closely following the increase in new cases.

Still, at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Dr. Graham Snyder said it’s important to take action now, before case counts climb any higher.

Mass vaccinations are the best shot at ending the pandemic—but not enough people are vaccinated yet to fully return to normal, said Synder, who is medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at the health system.

Meanwhile, masking and social distancing — words he acknowledged many people are tired of hearing — are the tried and true solution.

“On the other hand…if there’s low uptake of the vaccine, and/or people aren’t very vigilant about masking and distancing, then the peak could be as bad as it was in the winter or worse.”

During that peak last December nearly 13,000 people in Pennsylvania tested positive in one day. For comparison, the seven-day average of new daily cases last week was about 3,800.

Snyder said a mutation known as B117 or the UK variant spreads more easily and seems to be driving the increase.

He noted that the findings of this study and this follow-up from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are pretty clear when it comes to restaurants. They are the single highest-risk indoor space.

“And it makes sense, because there may not be high quality air circulation indoors, there are chances where we have to take down our mask, in order to eat, so that leaves us unprotected, and if we don’t stay distanced it increases the chance that we’ll encounter virus,” Snyder said. “So, there’s good reason why we should be apprehensive about spreading the virus in restaurants and bars. Because those are the times when the virus has the easiest chance to spread.”

Kate Landis / WITF

A bartender works at El Serrano in Lancaster.

At the Belvedere, Costanzo said he understands the seriousness of COVID-19. He was sick with it in January, when the restaurant was closed down. It hit the 34-year-old harder than he expected.

Still, the idea of tighter restrictions also weighs heavy.

“This is a very scary time for everyone,” he said. “We are just hoping… like everybody else, by next year this time, we can look back and say, ‘Hey, we did it,’ and life is back to normal. But we also said that a year ago—so we’ll see what happens here, you know?”

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