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At least four Delaware County bars were serving patrons Sunday afternoon, a day after Pennsylvania’s new indoor dining ban went into effect.
All looked closed — signage turned off, windows covered in black garbage bags — but inside, each had a handful of people enjoying drinks while watching the Eagles game, in violation of Gov. Tom Wolf’s new coronavirus mitigation measures.
Callahan’s Tavern in Upper Darby had its front door locked, and an employee told WHYY the business was closed and that he was only in the building to clean. Over the course of 10 minutes about an hour before kickoff, a reporter saw two people leaving the bar and another man entering.
A mile and a half away, Galway’s Pub had seven people at the bar, which could be accessed through the back door. None of the patrons or the bartender were wearing face masks. The owner was not on-site for an interview, according to the one employee behind the bar. Busty’s Tavern on the West Chester Pike could be similarly accessed through the back entrance. The bartender there said the four people at the bar were there for a private event and the door should have been locked.
Under Wolf’s order, which went into effect 12:01 a.m. Saturday, private events at bars are not allowed. Per the guidance on the state website, “all in-person indoor dining at businesses in the retail food services industry, including bars, restaurants, and private catered events is prohibited.”
Even before Wolf’s most recent mandate, ever since July 16, bars in Pa. have been prohibited from serving alcohol without food. Employees in dining establishments are supposed to be wearing face masks at all times.
Several Delco residents expressed worry about the ongoing operations, including Jordan Laslett, who works as an aide for Pa. Rep. Matthew Bradford in nearby Montgomery County.
“I was initially made aware of certain bars being open from several concerned individuals in my area,” Laslett said. “They advised me that there were Snapchat stories of bars actively flouting the Governor’s order. After reviewing my own social media, it was clear that there were indeed some bars that had refused to shut down.”
One Delaware County bar owner, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said the reporter had walked into his “private event” with five friends. He said was not taking money from the people drinking at the bar, but he understood why some venues might choose to defy Wolf’s orders.
“They took the night before Thanksgiving away, they took St. Patrick’s Day away, they took the Christmas parties, New Year’s Eve is gone, they’re going to take the Super Bowl away — we’ll see how long this goes on,” the bar owner said.
A suffering industry flouts rules that lack enforcement
The hospitality industry faces a dire situation nationwide, and the Philadelphia region has been hit worse than elsewhere, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The last lifeline the federal government offered bar and restaurant proprietors came in the spring through the Paycheck Protection Program.
Research from Yale University found that, among other measures, closing restaurants and gyms slowed coronavirus fatalities. Wolf and Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine cited the study when announcing the new rules, as well as a Stanford University study that found 8 of 10 new coronavirus cases in the early months of the pandemic came from “crowded indoor venues” such as restaurants, gyms, cafes and churches.
“It has become increasingly frustrating to see establishments in my own community disregard mitigation efforts,” said Laslett, the legislative aide. “These orders don’t come easy, but if we are going to get the upper hand on this virus, we need to hold each other accountable.”
The pandemic has surged in Pa. over the past month. The commonwealth is recording an average of more than 10,000 new cases daily, with 16% of people tested receiving positive results. More than 5,900 COVID-19 patients are currently in Pa. hospitals, nearly double the count in mid-November.
Since March, more than 12,500 Pennsylvanians have died from coronavirus complications.
The Delco bar owner who spoke with WHYY said that on a typical game-day Sunday, his place would be filled with around 75 Birds fans. “It gets frustrating and depressing and you go through a lot of anxiety,” he said, adding that he didn’t have land available for outdoor service.
Other than having his friends over for drinks, he said, he didn’t want to risk getting his liquor license taken away by opening for business.
Penalties for not following Wolf’s coronavirus mitigation rules include a fine of up to $1,000 “and possible suspension and/or revocation of the liquor license,” according to the Pennsylvania State Police website.
The State Police Bureau of Liquor Enforcement has issued more than 1,800 warnings to licensee holders since July 1, for things like failing to maintain occupancy limits and follow masking orders. More than 400 license holders have received a “notice of violation,” including 26 in the region that includes Philly and its suburbs. No actual citations have been issued.
Between Dec. 7 and 10, state police reported more than 235 licensee checks in the region, resulting in two warnings and no notices of violation.
The bar owner who spoke to WHYY said the new restrictions were just another form of government overreach.
“There’s six of us and we’re all socially distanced and we all talk to each other each day,” he said. “No one died in here yet.”