“Panic mode.” “Evolve to survive.” “Downsize.”
That's how owners and workers at local bars and restaurants have described the last few months, as they struggled to keep their businesses afloat amid the coronavirus pandemic. They say that recent changes to customer capacity and other safety protocols have made this time even more difficult to navigate.
First news of the shutdown
Daniel Hahn, assistant general manager at Bella Notte in the Strip District, remembers hearing that Gov. Tom Wolf had ordered non-life-sustaining businesses to close on Thursday, March 19. Restaurants could continue take-out and delivery, but for Hahn, the shutdown was happening at what would have been a huge revenue day for the Italian restaurant.
“It was right before St. Patrick's Day parade and we do a large party,” Hahn said. “So we were geared up for the amount of people coming -- close to 100 people -- before the parade.”
He said his thoughts immediately turned to his employees.
“No one knew what this was or what was going on,” Hahn said. “And you don't have the proper information and you need to do the best you can to make everybody healthy and safe.”
In Bellevue, Dari-Villa Restaurant owner Dominic Schepis closed the Monday after the statewide order came down and “kind of freaked.” He opened Tuesday for take-out and said it worked out alright, considering the circumstances, but estimates he lost 80 percent of his regular business.
When Allegheny County entered the governor’s green phase of reopening on June 5, and restaurants were allowed to welcome customers for indoor dining, Schepis did. State rules limited restaurants to 50 percent of legal capacity, which was 40 customers for Dari-Villa.
“That went for a few weeks and then they pulled the plug on that again,” Schepis said.
At the end of June, cases began to surge in Allegheny County. Contact tracing revealed that bars and restaurants had become hotspots for the virus’ spread, and officials once again tightened restrictions on indoor dining.
Jamie Campau never thought he’d see the day Bloomfield's Pleasure Bar would close.
“It was a real awakening to realize that this establishment that had been open 80-some years was not going to have its daily customers, fresh daily items, it was going to have to go to some standstill,” general manager Campau said.
The restaurant offered take-out, but garnered nowhere near what Campau expects this time of year in revenue. Eventually when they were legally able, they opened some of their dining room. But it didn’t last long.
“We had everybody distanced, we had what we thought were [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines followed for that,” Campau said, “and then to have that pulled and not know when we were going to get back to that, it was tough.”
Employees and finances
Somewhat quickly after the first shutdown, Campau said his more than one dozen employees realized it was unlikely they’d maintain full time employment at the restaurant. He said some workers filed for unemployment and the business reallocated some money it would normally have used for internal precautions, like air conditioner or cooler repairs.
In Pittsburgh’s East Hills, Tyrell Wright is a line cook at Simmie’s Restaurant and Lounge, where he said business has lagged.
“We close earlier. Our food prices went up,” Wright said. Two people at a time are only allowed inside and must wear masks or wait at a separate area.
“But I don’t know where our regulars are at,” Wright said. “The bar side hasn’t been getting that much business.”
Daniel Hahn at Bella Notte said without the federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, his restaurant would have a lot of trouble staying afloat. With such a decrease in revenue, it would have been a challenge to pay rent for the building and send paychecks to employees.
“God only knows what where we would have been, let alone all these other businesses down here in the strip district and across the nation,” Hahn said.
Masks, gloves and six feet markers
Outside Bella Notte on Penn Avenue are painted black-and-white feet distanced six feet apart. They’re an effort to encourage customers waiting on to-go drinks and food to stay safely away from each other and the restaurant employees. The markers are one of many changes the business has implemented to keep in line with CDC guidelines.
But Hahn notes not all businesses have taken the same precautions.
“It sucks when you see other places not following the rules and maybe realizing that's why we're not allowed to be at 50 percent capacity [anymore],” Hahn said.
Under the state restrictions, restaurants can only serve alcohol if a customer buys a meal and cannot serve additional drinks after that meal is finished. Alcohol consumption on-premises is only allowed if the food is prepared there. Snack foods like pretzels and chips don’t count.
As Allegheny County attempts to once again flatten the curve of new coronavirus cases, restaurants will be watching closely, and trying their best to adapt.