Wolf offers $20 million relief plan for bars and restaurants

The Associated Press
The Left Bank, which has been closed for nearly four months during the coronavirus pandemic, is shown on the first day of the restaurant's soft reopening in York City, Thursday, July 9, 2020. The 100 block of North George Street will be closed Friday evenings from 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. and both Saturdays and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 2 a.m., to allow the four restaurants, situated in what is known as Restaurant Row, to provide socially distanced outdoor seating to their patrons during the Covid-19 pandemic from July 10 to Sept. 7. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Pennsylvania plans to offer $20 million in relief to the state’s beleaguered hospitality industry, the governor announced Thursday, an amount trade groups called woefully inadequate for helping bars and restaurants survive the pandemic.

The state intends to waive liquor license fees in 2021 for more than 16,000 restaurants and bars, clubs, caterers and hotels, said Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who recently vetoed Republican legislation that would have loosened pandemic restrictions on the food and beverage sector.

“COVID continues to hurt this industry in a particularly awful way. They need our help now,” Wolf said at a news conference at LeMont, a venerated, upscale Pittsburgh restaurant.

The plan requires approval by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

Industry groups reacted coolly to Wolf’s proposal, saying it will barely make a dent in their members’ staggering financial losses.

John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, called Wolf’s offer an “olive branch” that won’t do much to help.

“If the restaurant industry is the backbone of Pennsylvania’s economy,” Longstreet said in a written statement, “then our governor needs to understand our backs are broken.”

Bars and restaurants have been reeling from the pandemic and the state’s efforts to contain it. The Wolf administration has imposed occupancy limits and other rules, including a prohibition on bar seating and a requirement that alcohol be served with food, that state health officials say are necessary to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Pennsylvania, like many other states, is dealing with a fall resurgence of COVID-19.

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Bar and restaurant owners have been fighting the restrictions for months, saying the Wolf administration has no evidence they’re responsible for rising case numbers. Industry officials have warned that thousands of establishments are in danger of closing permanently without relief from the state.

Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, said in a written statement Thursday that “while licensing fee help is part of the solution, much more needs to be done” to help bars and restaurants stay afloat.

Last week, Wolf vetoed a Republican-sponsored bill that would have let restaurants and bars reopen at up to full capacity, saying it would have increased the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks. Wolf has vetoed a series of GOP bills designed to eliminate or water down his pandemic restrictions.

Customers wait in line outside Round the Clock Diner on Route 30, not only for take-out orders but also to have their first sit-down mean in a restaurant since the start of Governor Wolf's COVID-19 shutdown. After learning that the York County District Attorney's office would not enforce criminal penalties due to Governor Wolf's shutdown orders, Round the Clock Diner opened to eat-in customers Sunday, May 10, 2020. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

Wolf said the virus forced his hand, but he stressed he remains committed to supporting bars and restaurants financially during the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen that even when owners, employees and patrons do everything right, the very nature of COVID continues to make gathering in restaurants at full capacity really dangerous,” he said. “But that’s not the fault of the restaurant owners ... and therefore they should not be forced to bear the financial burden of this alone.”

Wolf has been pressing the General Assembly to approve a $100 million aid package for the hospitality industry, including restaurants and bars, and take other steps to provide relief. The money would come from Pennsylvania’s share of the federal coronavirus relief law, of which about $1 billion remains unspent.

House Republican spokesperson Jason Gottesman said legislative Republicans will be “examining the best uses of that money given our $4 billion budget deficit and the many areas of state and local government impacted by COVID-19.”

Gottesman called Wolf’s liquor fee plan a “half measure of help,” saying the state’s hospitality industry is threatened by the governor’s “overbroad and onerous restrictions that are backed neither by science nor common sense.”

Republicans also circulated a June letter from Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board officials that said the board lacks authority to reduce statutory license fees and surcharges without legislative action.

Liquor board spokesperson Shawn Kelly said the board is “evaluating its authority to waive various categories of fees” and will address Wolf’s proposal at its meeting next week after completing a fiscal and legal review.

Pennsylvania regulations empower the liquor board to charge fees, and, by implication, to refrain from charging them, said Wolf spokesperson Elizabeth Rementer.

She added the Republican-led General Assembly “has failed to provide meaningful relief for these licensees despite having every opportunity to do so.”