Restaurant and bar owners plan to issue a threat to Gov. Tom Wolf later this week: “We’re going to stand together and open up at 100%,” said Rod Ambrogi, a restaurant owner in Bethel Park.
The warning comes nearly two weeks after 42 politicians formally asked Wolf through signed letters to ease up on his July 15 restrictions on restaurants and bars — especially the one that limits dining rooms to 25% capacity, a decrease from the 50% that had been permitted.
The letters were sent to Wolf and Health Department Secretary Rachel Levine on behalf of restaurant and tavern owners across Pennsylvania. Among those who signed the letters were state legislators Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills; Sen. Pam Iovino, D-Mt. Lebanon; Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-South Fayette; and Rep. Mike Reese, R-Mt. Pleasant.
Some of those restaurant and tavern owners formed an association in July named the Southwestern Pennsylvania Restaurant and Tavern Association. According to the group’s website, the association claims politicians who signed the letters “stand with them.”
‘Take our rights back’
The association touts attracting 200 bar, restaurant and tavern owners in the region to “to take our rights back.” It urges those business owners to sign a petition on Change.org that purports to have garnered 5,419 signatures.
“This industry has been singled out because of the actions of a few bad actors,” reads a letter signed by 37 state representatives. “We do not advocate for those actors, but rather ask for this consideration to be made to an industry on its last leg.”
The politicians’ letters demand that Wolf allow establishments to operate at full capacity while also adhering to rules of social distancing. When that’s not possible, they said owners should be allowed to install a partition between areas where people are eating and drinking.
They also want the governor to rescind a purchasing restriction of alcohol, which was part of Wolf’s July 15 order. The rule prohibits the sale of alcohol unless the patron buys food.
“We’ve got to stand up to him,” said Ambrogi, president of the association and owner of Al’s Café in Bethel Park.
Since sending the letters, the association has held several meetings and a rally at Al’s Café to demand relief.
Ambrogi said the response from Gov. Wolf and other state officials has been nonexistent.
Lyndsay Kensinger, press secretary to Wolf, responded to questions posed by a reporter Tuesday.
State says covid stats justify limitations
She pointed to state and federal public health agencies that have “recognized the closure of restaurants and bars as an effective mitigation effort to prevent the spread of covid-19.”
She also referenced numbers that showed over 50% of covid-19 cases in Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties from June 24 to July 9 were in the 19-49 age group. Kensinger said that is “an indicator of community spread as opposed to spread in congregate facilities such as nursing homes, where cases are declining. In April and May, most of the cases were in individuals 50 years of age and older.”
She said the Wolf administration saw bars, restaurants, nightclubs and out-of-state travel as risk factors in growing numbers of cases, which led to his decision to place further restrictions on those places and travel recently.
“It is critical that public officials, including all members of the General Assembly, recognize this evidence-based mitigation tactic, as Pennsylvania needs to show progress in the control of covid-19 infections before we can successfully lift targeted mitigation tactics,” Kensinger said.
Wolf’s press secretary then called on members of Congress to pass the Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed to Survive Act, or RESTAURANTS Act. The bill, proposed June 18, provides $120 billion to independent food service or drinking establishments devastated from the pandemic.
The state Health Department did not respond to a request to comment.
Group plans ‘ultimatum’ for Thursday
The threat to reopen their businesses to full capacity, Ambrogi said, is to grab state officials’ attention. The association plans to deliver what Ambrogi called “the ultimatum” to Wolf on Thursday during a rally, where Ambrogi said more details will be divulged.
The rally is scheduled for 9 a.m. at Al’s Café in Bethel Park.
If it comes to following through with the threat, Ambrogi said the restaurants and bars will continue to follow social distancing guidelines and mask-wearing requirements. He said many restrictions make sense.
“We just don’t want to be singled out,” he said. “There are kids going to some of the bars, but (covid-19) cases are coming up in the courthouses and on and on. Not just restaurants and bars. You see every day another bar or restaurant shuts down. These restrictions are gonna put us out of business.”
At Al’s Café, a family-owned business since 1959, Ambrogi said the pandemic’s hit has been hard.
He said the restaurant has struggled to pay bills, rent, utilities and employees. Before the pandemic, Ambrogi’s staff was up to around 60 people. He’s now down to around 20.
“And I haven’t taken a paycheck since May 16,” he said. “I’m trying to conserve the money — trying to hang on. You know, you plan for the rainy days, and that’s what we’re into now.”
He said no one on his staff has come down with covid-19. Ambrogi said the staff undergoes a temperature check, wears masks and uses hand sanitizers “constantly.”
“I understand the guidelines,” Ambrogi said. “but they got a hold on us and eventually, they’re going to put us out of business.”
Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, email@example.com or via Twitter .
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