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Pittsburgh Restaurants Approach Reopening With Caution

Larkin Page-Jacobs
90.5 WESA
Spork restaurant on Penn Avenue.

With Allegheny County entering the green phase of reopening from the coronavirus pandemic Friday, bars and restaurants will be free to serve dine-in guests for the first time since March. But not all establishments will reopen right away, and for those that do, the rules will be much different.

About half of Pennsylvania’s restaurants remained open for takeout and delivery during the three-month shutdown, ordered by Gov. Wolf to stem the spread of the virus. Among them were most of Eat’n Park’s approximately 60 locations. But patrons who return to the regional chain of full-service restaurants won’t be dining exactly as before.

State rules limit restaurants to 50 percent of legal capacity, and require staff and customers to wear facemasks if they are doing anything besides eating. Everyone must practice social distancing. And Eat’n Park has new lobby doors to keep enter-and-exit traffic one way. As required in the green phase, restaurants have also temporarily closed salad, fruit and soup bars, and substituted disposable paper menus for the reusable kind.

Even among restaurants that remained open for takeout during the pandemic shutdown, almost all laid off or furloughed staff, and suffered steep declines in revenue. A few establishments closed for good. But both economic and health concerns have many proceeding cautiously toward a full reopening.

Spork, in Friendship, closed for business in mid-March; take-out wasn’t a good fit for the kind of cuisine it was dishing up, said general manager Sean Enright. The restaurant made it through with help from federal stimulus funds. It’s planning to reopen June 23, to give it time to retrain staff, streamline its menu, and learn how to function with 32 seats instead of 64.

One issue is reservations.

“Everybody in Pittsburgh wants to eat at 7 o’clock. It’s a running joke in the restaurant industry,” he said. Accommodating people’s preferred dining times will require “a lot of maneuvering. It’s going to be a little bit of a game of Tetris to ensure that we are maintaining that 32 covers, and maximizing the night.”

Spork’s 23 staffers will be on reduced hours for now. Enright adds that an operation built on personal interactions as well as gourmet meals and craft cocktails will have to adjust to the social awkwardness of facemasked servers and bartenders. And hospitality-industry staff used to catering to diners' whims will suddenly be required to enforce facemask rules, he said: “We are gonna have to be pretty strict about that.”

Spork hopes to break even under the new operating rules. Other small restaurants are proceeding even more cautiously. Apteka, a vegan restaurant in Bloomfield, tried serving take-out after the shutdown, but stopped after three weeks because of safety concerns, said co-owner Tomasz Skowronski.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
La Gourmandine in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood has signage enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing.

Apteka (which also received federal stimulus funds) plans to re-open in late June, but for take-out only.

One reason is economic. Co-owner Kate Lasky says that even in normal times, restaurants operate on slender profit margins – 2 percent, she estimated. At 50 percent capacity – Lasky imagines Apteka would be able to seat only 15 or so diners at a time -- the math gets even harder because of fixed costs.

“We had this big crew, and certain costs don’t change. Trash doesn’t change, internet doesn’t change, POS [point-of-sale] system doesn’t change,” Skowronski said. “Rent doesn’t change.”

Another reason to hold off on dine-in service is safety.

“Allegheny County might be green lighted for this thing, but you can’t eat without taking off your mask,” said Skowronski.

To re-open for dine-in, they’d want to see more widespread, accurate testing for the virus, he said. He added, “I think what we’re looking for to open up confidently in a business that exposes a lot of people to potentially sharing a virus like this would be a lot more protection in place in the city and in the state.”

But even if restaurants are seating diners, will there be diners to seat? Many patrons are likely to be wary of eating, drinking, talking, and sharing bathrooms with a room full of strangers – even if there are only half as many as before.

Enright guesses the customers will come. “My impression is that people will be hungry to get out, and they’re probably sick of cooking meatloaf for the last three months at home,” he quips.

Michelle Rouse, who owns Simmie’s Restaurant and Lounge, is less sure. The Homewood restaurant was mostly dine-in before the pandemic shutdown, and Rouse said fees from delivery-service apps have eaten into her profits on take-out. But while Rouse said she’ll welcome diners Friday, she doubts there will be many.

“People aren’t gonna go out [to] restaurant in droves,” she said. She cited older folks like her mother, who she said hasn’t left her house and yard since the shutdown began.

“We’re up to it. We’re gonna see how Friday goes, and we’ll just take it from there,” she said. “Every day’s a new day.”

Meanwhile, for restaurants that were heavy on take-out before the shutdown began, Friday won’t be that big a deal. Quik-It Chicken, on the North Side, has a handful of tables but few customers used them. When the shutdown hit, “It didn’t change my business at all. I got busier!” said owner Eugene Thomas. He said that despite closing two hours earlier during the pandemic, his online orders alone were up 30 percent or more.

So as the county goes green, he said, “I don’t anticipate much change.” He’ll allow people to eat at his handful of tables, if they want -- but added he’d prefer they don’t.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: