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What Will Looser Restrictions Mean For Pittsburgh Bars And Restaurants And Their Staff?

It happens, said Kyle Lucas, at least once a week. The server and bartender at Fireside Public House, in East Liberty, will ask an unmasked patron to mask up. And then the patron will yell at Lucas.

Credit Courtesy of Kyle Lucas
Bartender and server Kyle Lucas says some patrons angrily resist masking up.

“It happens to co-workers all the time,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who don’t want to wear masks, who don’t think they need to, and it’s concerning because a lot of those people can get more aggressive than anyone should be in a restaurant, certainly.”

On Sun., April 4, Gov. Tom Wolf is loosening coronavirus-pandemic restrictions on bars and restaurants. What that will mean for server safety is just one question the industry is asking as the date approaches.

While industry advocates, and many owners, welcome the changes, others worry the move will lead to yet another spike in coronavirus cases. Cases in Pennsylvania and Allegheny County have already been increasing in recent weeks – and food-service staffers as a group are far from fully vaccinated.

They'll be eligible for vaccines April 12 – well after other workers whose jobs put them in close prolonged contact with the public, like school teachers and grocery workers.

"It's kind of frustrating that we weren't offered the vaccine"

“It’s kind of frustrating that we weren’t offered the vaccine, because restaurants are the only place that you’re not expected to wear a mask,” said Stevie Mihalik, a bartender at Morcilla, in Lawrenceville, and Merchant Oyster Co., in East Liberty. She said she feels more comfortable working at Morcilla, which has emphasized takeout, than working with indoor dining at Merchant Oyster.

“It seems very irresponsible to increase capacity when we aren’t vaccinated and we aren’t in a priority group that’s even the next in line to be vaccinated,” said Kacy McGill, co-founder and director of the group Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid, which has pushed to get restaurant staff vaccinated sooner.

Credit Courtesy of Stevie Mihalik
Courtesy of Stevie Mihalik
Bartender Stevie Mihalik

On Sunday, Pennsylvania restaurants will be permitted to seat up to 75 percent of their capacity – the highest since the pandemic shutdown began. Also, bar service will be permitted; patrons will no longer have to purchase food to buy alcohol to consume on premises; and the 11 p.m. curfew on alcohol sales will be lifted. Distancing of patrons, and masking by those who are not eating or drinking, will remain mandatory.

With the hospitality industry among the hardest-hit by the pandemic, some say it’s about time. A recent survey by the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association (PRLA) found that sales at restaurants this past January were down 38 percent from January 2020.

Since the first COVID-19 shutdown last March, establishments in Pennsylvania have suffered three separate temporary bans on indoor dining, and a dizzying, shifting array of rules. A number of restaurants have closed permanently, including such Pittsburgh landmarks as the Original Hot Dog House, in Oakland, and Bloomfield’s brillobox.

Some owners are fed up.

“I feel like our businesses were arbitrarily singled out,” said David Magill, who owns Mogie’s Irish Pub, in Lower Burrell.

Public health officials say bars and restaurants have been a major source of COVID-19 infections. In June, less than three weeks after Allegheny County permitted bars and restaurants to re-open for dine-in service, the county went from most days seeing 20 or fewer cases of COVID-19 to dozens, and then hundreds. The case numbers haven’t dropped to pre-June levels since.

"If you rush back, the only thing that happens is you set us back"

But Magill – who said he kept his business open for indoor dining during a state-mandated month-long closure that began in December – argues many restrictions should never have been imposed at all. He called the April 4 changes “a [expletive] arbitrary date, that’s all.”

PRLA president and CEO John Longstreet said in a statement that the group welcomed the changes, but would have preferred they be implemented immediately, when they were announced on March 15, rather than after a three-week delay.

“We would like to see the Governor allow the hospitality industry the opportunity to come back to business quicker, so that these businesses can survive this long period of disruption,” Longstreet said.

Yet in late March, officials in Philadelphia – citing rising numbers of cases and hospitalizations – announced they were delaying the looser restrictions until at least April 30.

"Our bar team is extremely excited to be able to serve some guests in a healthy way"

With coronavirus cases in Pennsylvania and Allegheny County on the rise recently, other restaurant owners here also say it’s way too soon to open back up.

“The jury is very much back on indoor dining, and it’s dangerous,” said Pete Kurzweg, who owns Independent Brewing Company, in Squirrel Hill. “It’s among the most dangerous activities that you can undertake for transmission of the virus.”

For the past year, Kurzweg’s restaurant has done takeout and outdoor dining only, with zero indoor service. He plans to keep it that way for the foreseeable future.

“If you rush back, the only thing that happens is you set us back,” he said. “The virus will spread the minute you let your guard down.”

It should be noted that for smaller restaurants, higher seating capacities won’t change much: Because they still must keep dining parties six feet apart, they can’t add many seats.

Dorian Moorefield owns Grandma B’s, in the Hill District. He’s at 50 percent capacity now, but says the extra couple counter seats he’d get at 75 percent isn’t worth the risk.

“We’ll probably just remain at 50 [percent] because it’s safer for myself and the workers,” he said.

Some critics worry more about letting customers drink at barside, later at night, and without buying food.

“In my experience, managing a crowd of people who are drinking … they start to kind of forget to mind their manners,” said Justin Lewis, the executive chef at a local brewpub. “So it’s just really difficult for me to square the decision to open up restaurants for bar seating and 75 percent capacity when the vast majority of people who work in the restaurant aren’t eligible to be vaccinated.”

It does seem that, anecdotally, some Pittsburgh restaurant staffers have gotten at least their first shots. But it’s sure to be weeks, if not months before a majority are fully vaccinated.

Credit Bill O'Driscoll / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Fig & Ash restaurant, on the North Side, opened in September, and has never operated outside pandemic restrictions.

This week, acting health secretary Alison Beam was asked whether the April 4 lifting of restrictions puts food-service workers at risk. Beam called the changes “incremental” and expressed confidence in the masking and distancing protocols still in place.

Many restaurant owners are looking forward to the changes. Cory Hughes opened his North Side restaurant, Fig & Ash, six months into the pandemic; the place has never known life above 50 percent occupancy. Hughes said he’s highly tuned to the risks the pandemic poses: His wife is a registered nurse who’s worked in a COVID intensive care unit. But he said most of his employees have had at least one of their shots, and he’s looking forward to April 4.

“Our bar team is extremely excited to be able to serve some guests in a healthy way,” he said.

Bartender Stevie Mihalik has mixed emotions about the increased activity Sunday will bring.

“I’m kinda looking forward to it,” said Mihalik, who was scheduled for her second shot Friday. “Bartending to a completely empty bar is depressing.” However, she added, “I’m definitely worried that cases are gonna go up again.”

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