‘You can’t make a plan until you have the rules’: As NEPA restaurants look to reopen, concerns about the future abound

Pizza by Pappas in Scranton, Pa., is waiting for the day it can start fully serving patrons again (Capital-Star photo by Patrick Abdalla)

SCRANTON, Pa. —  Familiar smells greet the regulars who pop into downtown Scranton’s Pizza by Pappas on a Friday afternoon. 

When you fall into line in front of the register, the scents of cooked pepperoni, crust and cheese waft around you. Of course, it isn’t business as usual with the COVID-19 pandemic raging in the region.

The line is longer because you stand six feet apart. And as you watch the workers buzzing behind the counter, you can only recognize them by the eyes that peak out from behind their masks. The dining room, of course, is the biggest change. Unlike a normal day, no one is sitting at the table. 

As talk of opening up the state heats up, restaurants are going to have to figure out how they’ll bring people back into their dining rooms. As of right now, no one really knows what that process is going to look like. 

“We’re going to wait and see what regulations are going to be in place,” Bill Sheakoski told the Capital Star on Wednesday. Sheakoski, and his brother Tom, own Pizza By Pappas. It’s going to be awhile, he thinks, until he sees a packed dining room. 

“My feeling is you’re not going to see a flock of people coming back all at once,” he said.

The big obstacle for restaurants when it comes to planning for reopening is that they don’t know what to expect. They haven’t been told what regulations will be put in place.

“The only plan we have in place is to open,” said Terry Holmes, who owns Terry’s Diner in nearby Moosic. “You can’t make a plan until you have the rules. … Until they set the rules, you can’t play.”

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“We are at the mercy of Gov. [Tom] Wolf,” said Brendan Bell, owner of the Original Coney Island of Scranton.

Wolf is working with medical professionals to look at how to balance the risks to health safety and the economy when it comes to reopening the state. On Friday, 24 counties in north-central and northwestern Pennsylvania will reopen. The early opening stage still requires restaurants to operate on take-out and delivery methods.

So, it’s going to be awhile before northeastern Pennsylvania’s restaurants reopen. 

For Dave Krappa, who owns the Avenue Diner, a popular restaurant in Wyoming, between Scranton and WIlkes-Barre, the state needs to start communicating with restaurant-owners. He sees how different states are dealing with the epidemic and the earlier the state releases its regulations, the better off the industry will be.

“We just need a little bit more clarification on everything,” he said.

Owners talked about their concerns for the industry. Several pointed out their concerns over restaurants that aren’t as established as theirs. The Avenue opened in 2004. Pizza By Pappas opened in 1971. Terry’s started in 1956. Coney Island opened in 1923. 

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“I don’t know how some people are going to survive this,” Holmes said.

“My big concern is that small mom and pop restaurants, we need volume to survive,” Krappa said.

The diner has experienced hard times before. In 1999, it was destroyed in a huge fire. After rebuilding, Holmes took over for his father.

“Those are the only days we were ever closed,” Holmes said. “We’ve never closed.“

When the pandemic hit, he left the decision of closing to his staff. They said to stay open. So he has. But business has taken a huge hit, he said.

But he’s optimistic Terry’s will make the needed adjustments. 

“My help all wears masks and gloves,” he said. “My dishwashing equipment sanitizes anything that goes through it.“

Sheakoski admitted the pizza parlor has had to make tough decisions. 

“We started closing on Sundays because we had no other way to get time off, just to get a breather,” he said.

The restaurant’s dining room is made up mostly of booths. Sheakowski said he and his brother had been considering changing it up to include more tables. Now, they’ll just wait to see what the government’s regulations are.

“It’s probably better not to order anything … until we know exactly what we are about to do,“ Sheakoski.

Bell put things in perspective. His restaurant opened in 1923. It’s weathered the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam, and other trying times.

“We’ve endured through all those tough times, he said, “and this is just one of them.” 

Correspondent Patrick Abdalla covers northeastern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @PaddyAbs.