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Not ‘business as usual’ for restaurants

“We will operate with a day by day playbook.”

These are the words of Marlyn Kissner, executive vice president of the Northern Tier of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce. Kissner is also in charge of a task force that will publicize and monitor federal and state guidelines for local small businesses once they are cleared to resume operation.

Safety first

In accordance with President Donald Trump’s three phase plan to re- open the economy after a full-scale shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, businesses will have to adhere to many restrictive measures, many of which have been in place since early March.

“We are a bottom up organization and we will set forth guidelines to all employers that must be followed to ensure the safety of both our workers and our public,” said Kissner.

Business owners will be expected to follow social distancing as stated in the federal government’s Phase One. Key points also include limiting groups to no more than 10 to 50 people at a time, depending on the size of the building and practicing personal hygiene by washing hands and using sanitizer. The wearing of masks will be highly encouraged. The use of disinfectants is required for common and high traffic areas. If feasible, temperature checks and contact tracing would be in effect.

Employers must monitor their workforce for indicative symptoms of the virus and if symptoms are identifiable, they must not allow an employee to return to work until clearance is attained from a medical professional.

Kissner and her task force will rely on sustained downward trajectory data to determine what county is permitted to open their businesses and on what date.

“We will have a rolling document posted week to week and county by county and depending upon the guidance we get from our health care providers and our legislators, we will then advise the small business owners.”

May day?

In Phase Two of the federal plan, employers must “close common areas where personnel are likely to congregate and interact or enforce moderate social distancing protocols.”

“After we acquire all the necessary resources, we would like to think we can begin this process in May,” said Kissner. “We will need to coordinate our efforts with county commissioners as well because each county is unique to population density and to types of businesses. A gradual overall reopening makes the most sense.”

Darren Behan, who operates Molly Maguires Pub and Restaurant in Jim Thorpe, said Friday he will not reopen in-house dining in May unless he’s certain there will be no further health risks to his staff.

“We have nearly 50 employees here and we want to be sure no one is put in harm’s way when we get back to business,” said Behan. Mollies had opened in March for curbside pickup, but Behan found the practice to be economically unsustainable.

Bringing back table service under the guidelines will have several peculiar issues. “Our number of patrons will be limited due to social distancing,” he said. “We’ll have to move half our tables and chairs into storage. We’ll probably resume curbside pickup with tape on the sidewalk that measures 6 feet apart.”

Behan can have his staff wear masks, but obviously his diners will have to remove theirs to eat, and that could pose a health risk.

“How do we serve a drink to someone and keep 6 feet apart?” he asked.

Sapore’s in Lehighton is also cautious. Server Kayla Ahner said, “We will not open on a set date unless we have complete safety for our employees. We are prepared to follow all guidelines set by the government.”

Stepping into the unknown

“There’s a real and justifiable fear the country is heading into a depression,” said Kissner, “and so it’s important we get people back to work.”

Since there is no modern precedent of a shutdown due to a pandemic, many problems will have to be addressed as they occur.

“We will establish a website with guidelines and we will rely on local feedback to monitor the ongoing operation,” she said.

Behan, who has obtained a loan that covers 75% of his payroll, explained that because of the nature of his business, he won’t know how many of his employees will return to work.

“They will have to compare what they get from unemployment benefits to their minimal wages here that rely heavily on money earned from customer tips,” Behan said.

Behan, who has been in the restaurant business for 32 years, raised the issue of the county by county monitoring that won’t factor in customers who travel from pandemic hot spots. “We’re in a tourist area and people regularly come here from New York and New Jersey. We can have someone let people in at the door, but we can’t turn anyone away just because they have a license plate on the front and back of their car.”

Large venues like Penn’s Peak in Jim Thorpe and the Kahlahari Resort in Pocono Manor would likely pose other problems.

“The physical protocol for movie theaters and concert halls is an unknown,” said Kissner, who is also involved with the Pocono Mountain Visitors Bureau. “Do you enforce seating 6 to 10 feet apart? Is that practical?”

Guideline enforcement, according to Kissner, will be solely the responsibility of the business employer with website attorneys available for advice and consultation in regard to legalities about violations.

Facing reality

Darren Behan spends these quiet days cleaning and painting his restaurant. His “regulars” come by while walking their dogs and tell him through a screen door how much they miss the enjoyment of his establishment. Behan reiterates that he will not jeopardize the safety of his workers just to make a buck.

“This pandemic is just in its infancy,” he said. “It’s no joke and we will take no risks until we’re 100% sure our staff can come to work and be safe.”

He recalled a question his father told him to ask when someone who comes to interview for a job at Mollies.

“I ask, what’s the most expensive thing in a restaurant? Their answers are usually a porterhouse steak or filet mignon. I tell them that’s incorrect.”

As Behan looked around his place again, he replied, “An empty seat.” Then he added, “And it’s never been truer than now.”

Darren Behan, owner of Molly Maguires Pub and Steakhouse sits at the empty bar. Behan has tried to keep busy by doing general maintenance at the restaurant. BOB FORD/TIMES NEWS
A closed sign at Molly Maguire's Pub and Steakhouse is all too familiar for Pennsylvania eateries. BOB FORD/TIMES NEWS