Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 shutdown lifted in Pennsylvania at 8 a.m. today

After about three weeks of shutdown because of the latest spike in COVID-19 leading up to the holidays, bars, restaurants and other food service businesses can start offering indoor service again starting today.

While a number of establishments did flout the Governor’s orders and stayed open to the holiday, most shuttered or offered takeout and delivery only to help stem the spread of the virus.

Starting today those establishments can be open at 50% dining capacity if they are self-certified in COVID-19 protocol and at 25% if they are not.

Other pre-shutdown regulations remain in place including requiring a meal with alcohol purchase and ending alcohol sales at 11 p.m.

Cocktails to go and carryout beverages are still allowed.

Any municipalities that have implemented more restrictive mitigation efforts remain in place.

Gyms, movie theaters and fitness centers are also all reopening with previous restrictions in place.

The order, which began Dec. 12, expired at 8 a.m. Monday morning.

As of Jan. 2, 661,871 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Pennsylvania.

Local Red Robin restaurants to keep staff working during shutdown

The Lehigh Valley Restaurant Group has pledged to keep its 1,400 Red Robin employees employed during the 3-week shutdown. PHOTO/SUBMITTED


Many small businesses in the region say the latest COVID-19 shutdown is even harder than the first one was.

Without the federal aid that came with the first shutdown in the spring, many are finding it much harder to stay afloat with the reduced capacity.

The Lehigh Valley Restaurant Group is no different, said Mike Axiotis, president and CEO of the Red Robin franchise, which has locations throughout the Lehigh Valley and Central Pennsylvania. But despite the challenges, Axiotis said his company pledged to keep its 1,400 employees working during the three-week shutdown.

“That’s the plan right now,” said Axiotis. “There’s just no way I can do that to our people at this time of the year.”

The restaurants’ current revenue won’t cover the cost of keeping all the employees working during that time on takeout and delivery orders alone, but the company will dip into its savings to make it happen, he said. During the last shutdown the franchise laid off about 90% of its then 2,000 employees. When the shutdown ended only 1,400 came back, and he doesn’t want to see that kind of employee loss again.

While the restaurant group will be keeping everyone on the schedule, hours and duties may be reduced. Servers may be taking phone calls for pick-up and delivery orders, for example, but they will be working.

“People who were working 30 hours a week may only get 15 hours per week,” he said.

The good news is that those employees will qualify for partial unemployment to make up the difference.

With the restaurant group still understaffed because of the losses from the last shutdown it seemed like the smart thing to do to keep employees working so that they knew they were wanted and valued, Axiotis said. But if the shutdown goes longer than three weeks, the plan may not be sustainable.

“If you’re just in takeout mode for an extended period of time, it’s just not sustainable,” Axiotis said.

The spring shutdown was supposed to last two weeks, but ended up being 15, he said. If that happens again, Axiotis will have to rethink staffing levels.

In the meantime, he’s asking customers to buy gift certificates and order curbside pickup for the next couple of weeks to help restaurants, like Red Robin, stay afloat during the difficult time.

He’s also asking the federal government to come through with assistance for businesses in the hospitality industry saying that even those that made it through the first shutdown may not have enough resources to make it through this one.

‘It’s devastating!’ Restaurants, small businesses unhappy with Gov. Wolf’s latest COVID-19 shutdown



Businesses across the state, especially in the restaurant industry, are unhappy with news of another COVID-19 shutdown.

“It’s devastating, absolutely devastating,” said Jim Fris, president and CEO of the PJW Restaurant Group, which operates P.J. Whelihan’s restaurants and a number of other brands in Eastern and Central Pennsylvania. “To have to go out to more than 1,000 employees and tell them they’re not going to be able to work three weeks before Christmas is just devastating.”

On Thursday, Gov. Tom Wolf said indoor dining and alcohol sales would be shut down between Dec. 12 and Jan. 4, to slow the progress of the virus.

Indoor gyms, casinos, arcades and movie theaters are also being closed.

But the restaurant industry has long said it feels singled out by the COVID-19 restrictions.

“Once again, small business taverns and licensed restaurants are bearing the brunt of the mitigation order with no financial or legislative help on the horizon,” said Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association in a statement.  “We get that the virus is contagious. We get that the number of confirmed cases and hospitalizations are increasing. What we don’t get is why our state government has asked the industry to sacrifice so much, but continues to sacrifice the industry.”

Wolf said the move was based on multiple studies showing that indoor dining is a driver of infections and deaths.

study by JP Morgan analyzed credit card spending of more than 30 million Chase cardholders and Johns Hopkins University’s case tracker and found that higher restaurant spending in a state predicted a rise in new infections three weeks later.

Additionally, research from Stanford University found that restaurants accounted for a significant amount of new infections while research from Yale University found that closing restaurants reduced fatality rates.

Fris said one of his biggest beefs with the announcement was its timing. Not only are the holidays one of restaurants’ busiest seasons, but he made the announcement on a Thursday, with little notice meaning restaurants had already bought their food for the weekend, food that may now go to waste. The restaurant industry has been asking the state to give adequate notice if there was going to be another shutdown.

“The way he did this is completely wrong,” Fris said.

John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, noted that the provision, which allows for outdoor dining, isn’t going to be helpful.

“Restaurants find it increasingly challenging to conduct outdoor dining as temperatures dip and realistically cannot survive on takeout, delivery, and carry out alone,” he said in a statement.

The National Federation of Independent Business in Pennsylvania, which represents 13,000 small businesses in the state, said Wolf’s order will be a “death knell for struggling shops and stores.”

“Governor Wolf expresses verbal concern over the harms to small business, but his actions indicate a total lack of understanding of what is really happening,” said Gordon Denlinger, NFIB’s Pennsylvania’s state director. “Unfortunately, Governor Wolf’s order was not coupled with any plan, to support the hundreds of business owners, their employees, and families his measures will impact.”

Longstreet echoed that concern.

“When shutdowns came in March, the federal government created several safety nets for businesses and employees through the Paycheck Protection Program and additional unemployment compensation,” he said. “Those programs no longer exist this time around, and there is no guarantee Congress will act to extend them soon. Many of our industry’s employees used up their unemployment compensation eligibility from the first shutdown.”

While many businesses affected by the shutdown are unhappy, some groups think the shutdown orders don’t go far enough.

Public interest advocacy group PennPIRG said the state is at a critical point in the fight against COVID-19 and the decisions made by leaders today will determine how many lives are saved.

“The past few weeks have seen COVID-19 surging across the country, and Pennsylvania is no exception,” said PennPIRG advocate Emma Horst-Mart. “By limiting some of the most high-risk activities and where people can gather together indoors, Governor Wolf is protecting public health. While the governor is taking some right steps, given how quickly and widely the virus is spreading in the state, we need a stronger response. The quickest way to lower cases dramatically is to close all non-essential businesses and ensure that people stay home.”

Pa. House passes bill to end governor’s shutdown order

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives late Thursday night approved a bill to end the shutdown of businesses in the state.

The bill, which passed by a 117 to 85 vote, which was largely along party lines, with a few Democrats voting in favor, would end the governor’s executive order that shut down businesses.

It would leave in place the state’s emergency declaration so assistance would still be available for such entities as nursing homes. The bill now heads to the state senate.

In a press release, the Republican leaders criticized the shutdown as “arbitrary, frustrating and destructive to family-owned small businesses.”

Non-life-sustaining businesses were shut down in mid-March as part of the governor’s plan to stop the progression of the COVID-19 virus.

Some parts of the state entered the green phase of the governor’s reopening plan today, which allows most businesses to resume, but with social distancing.

The rest of the state will move to the yellow phase of the governor’s reopening plan on June 5. The yellow phase allows retail and restaurants to open with some restrictions. Restaurants, for example, would be allowed to provide dine-in service in outdoor areas with socially-distanced seating.

Businesses such as salons, gyms and theaters will not yet be allowed to reopen.

As of Thursday the state had more than 70,000 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 and more than 5,300 deaths.

Builders, contractors, seeking exemption from Wolf’s closure order

This photo from last summer 2019 shows construction from outside Five City Center in downtown Allentown. (PHOTO/BRIAN PEDERSEN) –

In a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf, officials from the five chapters that make up the Associated Builders and Contractors of Pennsylvania, asked for a waiver for the construction-industry-at-large, and clarification of his executive order to shut down businesses.

There is no doubt the Coronavirus (“COVID-19”) pandemic has disrupted and impacted our daily lives and measures are needed to limit the spread, ABC officials said. The construction industry has been doing its part in sharing information, resources, and best practices. Many of its members build the supply chain for the very ‘life-sustaining businesses’ that are required to remain open, they said.

“There is no greater time for our government leaders to provide clear guidance to the business community,” said Joe Perpiglia, ABC Eastern Chapter president and CEO, in the letter. “The governor’s order created chaos and confusion at a time when we need the opposite.”

Others stressed the need to find a reasonable balance between mitigating the health crisis and continuing the essential services the construction industry provides to the community.

“Our members’ main concern is certainly the well-being of their employees,” said

Marianne Hazel, ABC Central Chapter president. “The guidelines and communication flowing from the Department of Health have been very clear and helpful. In fact, our association has passed along these resources during this pandemic. We ask the governor to follow suit and provide us with clarity on the executive order.”

The five chapters are the Central Pennsylvania Chapter; Cumberland Valley Chapter; Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter; Keystone Chapter; and Western Pennsylvania Chapter.

ABC PA represents nearly 1,400 member companies and about 67,000 employees.

Businesses that could apply for a waiver include those that perform life-sustaining construction projects, said Lyndsay Kensinger, spokesperson for Gov. Wolf, in a statement. The state Department of Community & Economic Development is working through the waiver review process right now.