House passes restaurant reopening with bipartisan support; Wolf says he’ll okay take out mixed drinks

By: - May 19, 2020 5:54 pm

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In their latest in a string of votes to reopen the state economy from COVID-19 shutdowns piecemeal, the Pennsylvania House agreed to allow restaurants to serve dine-in customers Tuesday.

The Republican-controlled chamber gave its approval to a pair of bills sponsored by Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, allowing restaurants, bars, brewpubs and wineries to reopen both indoor and outdoor seating if they follow CDC social distancing guidelines. Indoor seating could only be at 50 percent of capacity.

Restaurants could only open in the 37 counties that have begun to reopen. Restaurants in counties still under stay-at-home orders could not reopen.

“We have flattened the curve,” Everett said on the House floor. “It’s time to relax a bit.” 

Food takeout and delivery have remained open during the shutdown, but a restaurant industry leader earlier estimated that it accounts for only about 20 percent of normal business.

Meanwhile, new COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania have been declining. But health experts, including the CDC’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, have warned that a second wave of the virus is “inevitable.” Others have cautioned against relaxing restrictions too quickly, citing limited state testing and tracing resources.

Both of Everett’s bills passed with wide bipartisan support, but neither reached the two-thirds majority needed to overcome a veto from Gov. Tom Wolf. 

The cross-party support was brewing yesterday, when eight out of 10 Democrats on the House Liquor Control Committee sent a letter to Wolf Monday asking for an executive allowance for outdoor seating in reopening counties.

Such seating over the Memorial Day weekend will give the restaurant industry a “mini-stimulus,” they argued, and an “opportunity to build consumer confidence and demonstrate that consumers can once again safely dine outside their homes with reasonable limitations.”

Many of the letter’s signatories, however, voted against the proposal to reopen restaurants’ outdoor seating legislatively.

One, Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, told the Capital-Star that the bill as written would tie Wolf’s hands in case there is a second outbreak, and he needs to once again close the state.

Another Democratic committee member, who did not sign the Wolf letter, took to the House floor to make a fiery speech opposing any reopening.

“What we’re demanding right now, and what folks are demanding, is that they are to be served, that they get to be served … by a service worker that they refuse to pay a $15 dollar minimum wage,”  Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, said.

Wolf has, so far, held firm, and defended his executive authority during the public health crisis, vetoing three bills Tuesday that would have reopened such businesses as pet groomers, couriers and manufacturing

He did signal, however, that he would sign a bill to allow bars to sell to-go mixed drinks. 

In a statement last week, the state tavern association said that the measure would give “establishments one more small revenue stream to help them survive.”

The same mix — a letter from Democrats, and legislation from Republicans — hit Wolf’s desk this weekend on reopening real estate.

Wolf vetoed the real estate reopening bill Tuesday, but then issued guidance to allow for limited sales and home showings the same day.

House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, referenced the maneuver while asking for support for the restaurant proposal.

“Perhaps we will finally see action,” Cutler said, “once it reaches the governor’s desk.”

The bills now head to the state Senate, who must approve before Wolf could have a chance to take action.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.