Judy Henry has been playing by the rules.
The owner of Judy's on Cherry has been following each and every mandate issued by Gov. Tom Wolf in the quest to fight the spread of COVID-19.
She closed her restaurant when told to in the spring, she had limited capacity when allowed to reopen, she has followed masking and distancing and cleaning guidelines.
And when Wolf announced on Dec. 10 that indoor dining would be closed down again, this time for the three weeks of the holiday season that typically make up restaurants' busiest time of the year, she complied.
But following the rules has not been easy. In fact, it has put her business, any many others like it, it jeopardy.
"There exists a very real, existential conundrum," Henry said. "We're unfairly caught in a real internal struggle, pitting our desire to do the right thing, to abide by the governor's orders and look out for the health and safety of our customers and our staff, against the absolute economic reality of losing our livelihood.
"It's really demoralizing for those of us who are suffering so much economic hardship that the side effect of us being compliant is the ruination of our businesses."
The problem is, Henry said, that when the governor issued his shutdown order it wasn't coupled with any sort of financial help. Already facing a difficult year because of the pandemic, that has left the restaurant industry on the brink.
That has led some restaurant owners to defy Wolf's indoor dining ban, a move that has drawn takeout business away from restaurants that are complying, Henry said.
If help doesn't arrive soon, Henry said, it means she'll likely have to shut her doors completely to start the new year.
"We need very real and very rapid assistance at this point," she said. "Otherwise, we're going to lose our butts in this thing.
"My head is spinning," she added. "I'm confused. I'm frustrated. And, there's part of me that's really angry."
'Have to do something'
Last week, Henry organized an online meeting with several of her fellow Berks County restaurant owners and state Sen. Judy Schwank.
The point, Henry said, was to make clear just exactly how bad things are right now for restaurants. Especially those complying with the governor's indoor dining ban.
"We can't just sit here and do nothing," Henry said. "We have to do something."
Schwank said she understands the position they're in.
"They're very disappointed," she said. "They are really showing a brave face, considering everything that has happened to them. But they've had it."
Finding a way for the state to help must be a priority, Schwank said. It's something the state Legislature needs to address as soon as it reconvenes on Jan. 5.
"We should be working together on getting this done," she said. "Our constituents, no matter what party they are, are suffering. This is a communitywide crisis, and it is a crisis."
While a newly passed federal COVID-19 relief bill could provide some help, Schwank said the state needs to do its part as well.
"We're certainly going to try to look at it on the state level," she said.
The state also needs to find a way to deal with restaurants that have been flouting the governor's restrictions, Schwank said. That's a message, shared by the restaurant owners she met, that the senator has already shared in a letter to the governor.
"They are respectful of the role you must play in keeping Pennsylvanians safe through the pandemic, however they are very disappointed in how the commonwealth is enforcing the closure orders," she wrote. "They are asking that the orders be strictly enforced and that there are significant consequences for restaurants and bars that have remained open.
"Those establishments that have stayed open even have their own website flaunting their defiance."
While Schwank said she understands the reasons for that defiance and isn't in favor of penalties such as hefty fines, there are other ways to reward those who have followed the rules. In her letter she suggests several to the governor that were suggested by local restaurant owners:
- Not allowing restaurants that defied the indoor dining ban to reopen at the capacity those that did comply are allowed to reopen with.
- Treating restaurants that serve alcohol and defy the indoor dining ban the same way a restaurant that serves alcohol to minors is treated.
- Giving priority to compliant restaurants in future small business grant programs.
"These types of consequences would allow those restaurant owners that have been closed the ability to get their business on track and at the same time allow them to catch up to the businesses that have stayed open," Schwank wrote.
Help on the way?
A move made by Wolf last week might signal a bit of welcome relief for restaurant owners.
The governor announced he would be transferring $145 million from the Workers Compensation Security Fund at the Pennsylvania Insurance Department into state grants for businesses impacted by COVID-19, including restaurants, gyms and entertainment venues.
"Business owners and employees have worked hard to protect their customers and their communities during this pandemic, and I thank all of those who have prioritized health and safety despite the hardship of the past several months," Wolf said. "Our business owners and workers have been forced to make sacrifices because of COVID-19 and they need and deserve our support."
It is still unclear when that money might be available or how much will go to the restaurant industry. Although Wolf's move makes the money available, it will be up to the legislature to authorize its appropriation for grant programs.
Wolf, also last week, urged the Legislature to get behind an effort by Senate Democrats to pass the Pennsylvania Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act of 2021 (PA CARES 21) that would issue $4 billion in emergency debt to fund programs previously funded by the federal CARES Act.
And the governor is pushing for Congress to pass the Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed to Survive (RESTAURANTS) Act that would provide $120 billion in aid to restaurants and bars across the nation.
A spokesperson for the governor also said Tuesday that the governor "will continue to explore additional options beyond the $145 million the governor made available last week to quickly provide financial support to the industry."
As for enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions, the state Department of Agriculture has been issuing notice of closure to restaurants violating the indoor dining ban. Last week 10 Berks restaurants were on that list.
And the state Department of Health on Dec. 23 filed a petition with the Commonwealth Court seeking an injunction against 22 restaurants, including eight in Berks, that will bar them from offering indoor dining. The petition also asks for compensatory and punitive damages.
The petition is still pending.
To date, a Department of Agriculture spokesperson said, there have been no fines assessed in relation to closure orders for COVID-19 restriction violations.
Dans at Green Hills isn't meant to be a takeout restaurant.
It's fine dining, owner Bill Woolworth explained, with the highest price points in the county. It's the kind of place you go to sit down for a meal, not pick up a box full of food.
During the governor's bans on indoor dining, however, the restaurant has made the shift to takeout. It hasn't been easy.
On Christmas Eve Dans had about 100 takeout orders. The day before it only had a dozen. And even that 100 was a far cry from the 200 it got for Mother's Day.
Limited capacity and the cost of health and safety supplies had already provided a hit, and being limited to takeout orders simply isn't manageable.
"We have lost money every week in November and December, and things fell off a cliff with no indoor dining," Woolworth said, adding that the holiday season is usually a boon for his business. "I haven't made any money to get us through the first quarter of the year like I normally do."
This year has been the first since the restaurant moved from downtown Reading to its current location along Route 10 near Flying Hills seven years ago that it hasn't made money. It's been so tough, Woolworth said, that his only option is to temporarily close its doors.
"I'm really hoping to reopen for Valentine's Day, but we will have to wait and see at the end of January what the situation is," he said.
It's a hard pill to swallow. One made even more harsh by some restaurant owners' defiance of the governor's mandate, Woolworth said.
While Woolworth said he understands why they're doing what they're doing, the fact that they're remaining open while restaurants like his are following the rules is "actually almost insulting."
"The real kick in the pants is, just this past week I had some customers tell me they were going to another restaurant instead of getting takeout from me because the other restaurant was open for indoor dining," he said. "I understand that those restaurant owners want to survive, but the problem is it has created such an unlevel playing field."
Blame on state
Woolworth said he would like to see the state do something to smooth that playing field.
"If COVID is this dangerous they should be doing something," he said of enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions. "Right now they seem to be doing nothing."
But more importantly than that, Woolworth said, the state needs to lend a hand to businesses that are complying.
"The real issue is that the state needs to assist businesses that they've asked to close," he said.
Woolworth said Dans has received some federal relief funding, and he gave kudos to Berks County for disbursing relief money it received to local businesses.
"Our commissioners, they made sure that the CARES Act money that came to Berks County, even though we got small amounts, they got it into the hands of businesses that needed it, quickly," he said. "But we have got zero-point-zero from Pennsylvania. And that is the entity that shut us down.
"The state needs to put its money where its mouth is."
In a better position
Unlike Woolworth and Henry, Kirby Powell isn't planning on shutting down his restaurants in January.
The co-owner of Saucony Creek Brewing Co. said the restaurants' locations in Kutztown and Reading each have large outdoor dining spaces — enough for 30 in Kutztown and 100 in Reading — which have been a great help during the summer and fall months.
And even as the weather turns colder, outdoor heaters are allowing outdoor dining to continue.
But Powell still isn't happy with the current situation.
He said the data he's seen, including on the governor's website, shows that restaurants account for less than 10% of the spread of COVID-19 cases. In some studies its as low as 2% to 4%.
That's partly because he and most other restaurant owners have invested a lot of money in equipping their establishments to be a safe as possible, Powell said.
"But here we sit and we're not allowed to have indoor dining and there's no data to really fully support a full closure," he said.
Powell said most in the restaurant industry are trying to do the right thing. Most are trying to follow state mandates but have ended up paying a steep price.
It's no wonder then, he said, that some restaurants have decided to go the other direction and defy the indoor dining ban.
"I understand why some restaurants have taken the position they have," he said. "For many it's a last-ditch effort. If they don't stay open they're going to close permanently."
That doesn't mean Powell is going to follow suit. He said Saucony Creek will remain open, but will also continue to follow COVID-19 restrictions like the indoor dining ban.
Hopefully, he said, that adherence to the rules will result in earning some much-needed help from the state. But he's not holding his breath.
"I would love to see sufficient help," he said. "But I have my doubts that sufficient help will come because of all the politics and bureaucracy."