A hearing is set for next week in Harrisburg to discuss the impact of COVID-19 mitigation efforts on restaurants, bars and taverns across the state.
And rural voices will be part of it, as the hearing is before the House Majority Policy Committee, chaired by state Rep. Marty Causer.
“I certainly want to hear the rural perspective,” Causer, R-Turtlepoint, said. Riki Tanaka, owner and operator of Table 105 in Kane and Corner Bistro and Fox’s Pizza in Smethport, will be testifying at the hearing.
“When he reached out to me, I said absolutely,” Causer explained. The hearing was prompted by Gov. Tom Wolf’s July 15 order that required the establishments to reduce their operations to just 25% capacity for indoor dining, while any bars or nightclubs that only serve alcoholic beverages and no food had to close completely.
Tanaka spoke to The Era about the impact on his employees.
“Hands down, the worst day of my life in business was furloughing 79 people,” he said. “People who worked very hard for me. People who in some cases still haven’t received their unemployment benefits.”
Between his three restaurants, he employs 93 people.
“I spoke to Mr. Causer and he said a predominant number of folks who are going to be testifying were from larger areas,” Tanaka said. “I felt it necessary to go down and testify for our rural area, to try to represent rural America in general.
“Hopefully we can affect change and we can all try to survive this,” he added.
Referring to the latest order, Causer said, “This order is a serious gut punch to these hard-working small business owners and their employees who need their jobs to take care of themselves and their families. Our restaurants, bars and taverns have been struggling for months. They could barely make ends meet at 50% capacity and now the governor has forced them down to just 25% with less than 24 hours’ notice.”
The General Assembly has been arguing against a one-size-fits-all approach to mitigation. And so is Tanaka.
“It’s like education. Not everyone learns in the same way,” he said. Schools work to best serve children by tailoring approaches to learning. The state should do the same, as it did with the phased reopening approach, Tanaka said. “A blanket policy is ludicrous.”
Causer said, “The statewide nature of the order also doesn’t make sense, as it does needless harm to restaurant, bar and tavern owners in areas of the state with very low incidence of COVID-19. For those establishments that are able to survive, the road to recovery is going to be very long and very challenging.”
The hearing, which will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the House Majority Caucus Room, Room 140, Main Capitol, has a full agenda. The committee will hear from representatives of restaurants, bars, taverns and social clubs like VFWs.
Linda Devlin, executive director of the Allegheny National Forest Visitors Bureau, is asking for the public to get involved, too.
“It is vitally important that local residents support the efforts being undertaken by our legislators and restaurant owners to educate the governor on the differences between the larger urban areas which have spiking numbers, and the rural areas of Pennsylvania which continue to have very low COVID-19 case numbers,” she said.
Devlin said local restaurants were already struggling when Wolf and the state Department of Health lowered the seating occupancy to 50%, and 25% may cause permanent closures.
“Locally, our restaurants have from Memorial Day to the end of fall foliage season in October to generate extra income from tourist spending to help them bridge the slow winter months,” she explained. “This last mandate could not have come at a worse time for restaurants, bars, and other food venues.”
Other states are doing things differently, she said. “Nearby, in New York, a science based formula is being applied to track increases and a very defined percentage of cases in relation to the number of tests, is applied to new data.
“It is this information which leads to the COVID-19 decisions within New York. As residents of Pennsylvania, we deserve a similar system, a system based on scientific data,” Devlin continued. “A case count increase of one or two cases in a county should not be a reason to send our business owners into bankruptcy.”
The Visitors Bureau is asking members of the public to speak out, to contact the governor’s office through his website’s contact form.
“Please go online to send the governor a clear message that the new occupancy mandate of 25% indoor seating capacity needs to be removed from McKean County, and all the other Pennsylvania counties currently in the green phase which do not have large spikes in COVID-19 cases,” Devlin encouraged. “Local restaurants should be able to return to 50% seating occupancy and the previous guidelines as set by the Pennsylvania Department of Health and CDC guidelines.”
Tanaka said that Harrisburg should understand that rural areas are different from the rest of the state. People here help each other out. During the shutdown, the Tanakas did chicken barbecues to donate money to the volunteer fire department and the food pantry, knowing that rural areas have fewer resources to help the needy.
“We take care of our own up here,” he said. “In that same sense, we should be able to govern our own up here.”
The people elected to govern should be allowed to do so, Tanaka said, referring to mayors, supervisors and commissioners who know the communities. And know that more people visit big box stores — that are allowed to be open at a larger capacity — in a day than could eat in all of the rural restaurants combined.
He added, “We’re in a county that I feel shouldn’t be treated the same as Philadelphia or downtown Pittsburgh. I want to make my voice heard and try to affect change with the governor on how he manages this epidemic.”