Increased Occupancy for Restaurants – Finally Some Relief, Sort of…

September 10, 2020
Aaron K. Zeamer

On Tuesday, Governor Wolf announced that starting September 21st, restaurants may (but are not required to) increase their indoor seating capacity to 50%. This accommodation will finally provide some relief to the industry many believe has been the most significantly impacted by the Governor’s mitigation efforts.

On its face, this increased occupancy appears to be good news, but it comes with a catch that may significantly impact many operators.

Restrictions and Requirements

Most notably, along with the ability to increase occupancy to 50%, the most recent changes also prohibit the sales of alcohol after 10 p.m.  They also continue the prohibition on bar seating and continue the requirement that any alcohol sold for on-premises consumption be served in the same transaction with a meal. These changes were outlined in a press release, but we are waiting on a final Order from the Governor.

The other nuance that came with this Order requires that in order to increase capacity to 50%, the establishment must self-certify that they will implement and follow all of the public health measures and orders currently in place and issued by the Governor/Department of Health.  This process has not yet been finalized, but it appears that it will be handled online and require the business owner to

  • review the current restrictions
  • indicate they understand and will comply with those restrictions, and
  • state their maximum indoor capacity according to the fire code.

This self-certification must be completed by October 5 if businesses wish to continue with the 50% capacity.

When the Governor’s Office announced the increase in capacity, many initially celebrated the move. However, with the additional restrictions imposed along with the increase, it is in many ways a step backward.  In a time when every sale counts, limiting the sales of alcohol to 10 p.m. will hurt even more.

PA House Bill No. 2513 May Remove the Governor’s Restrictions

At a time when so much of the news is bad, perhaps I can end this update with some potential good news in the works.  Back in May, a Bill was introduced in the House that essentially removed all of the current restrictions imposed by the Governor since July 15.  You might remember that was the date the Governor reduced capacity to 25%, required food to be served with alcohol, prohibited bar seating, and otherwise got us to where we are today.

House Bill 2513 has recently gotten a lot of traction, in part because many legislators have heard from the hospitality industry that the current restrictions are putting them out of business.  The Bill has been passed in the House and is now moving in the Senate, with urgency.  If this Bill passes, it appears it will do so with broad bipartisan support and would hopefully be veto-proof.  So even if the Governor isn’t happy with it, he may not have a choice.

This Bill would be a huge help to the industry, one in desperate need of a win. I’ll provide additional updates on this Bill as it progresses through the legislature.

Aaron Zeamer is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He practices in a variety of areas, including Business Law and Liquor License matters. Aaron works frequently with commercial real estate agents, brokers, restaurant and bar owners, breweries, distilleries, and wineries to facilitate the sale and transfer of PA liquor licenses.