Dine-in services shutdown has Oakland restaurant owners worried

By Janine Faust, Editor-in-chief

Spice Island Tea House, a southeastern Asian eatery on Atwood Street, has provided steady service for 25 years — but it’s never had to deal with state-mandated closures because of a pandemic before.

“Everything’s changed in the last 48 hours. We’re still trying to wrap our heads around it,” owner Ron Lee said. “We’ve never been in a situation like this.”

Lee and numerous other restaurant owners in Oakland are uncertain about what the future might hold following a new order from the state government this past weekend. In accordance with Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 disaster declaration order, Gov. Tom Wolf declared that all restaurants and bars in several counties with a significant number of coronavirus cases, including Allegheny, must close their dine-in facilities for the next two weeks. This move is meant to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, with six cases reported in Allegheny County as of Monday.

Businesses may continue to offer carry-out, delivery and drive-through, but patrons cannot sit down and be served inside. Restaurants and bars that do not adhere to Wolf’s order could face “enforcement actions.”

In light of this, certain Oakland businesses are closing completely for the next 14 days, while others are seeing if they can sustain themselves financially through only take-out orders. Many had expected losses regardless due to students not returning to campus following spring break after Pitt moved to remote learning and later requested students to leave on-campus housing.

Lee is among those who plan to see how long they can keep their businesses going in the next two weeks just by completing take-out orders.

“It will significantly cut down on business … we understand it’s for the best. It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “But it does impact a lot.”

Lisa Browns, who owns Eat Unique on South Craig Street with her husband Dave, said they’re going to try to keep the cafe running on take-out orders until “it’s not feasible to open the doors.” Eat Unique still had dine-in service on Monday, and Browns said it made about 25% of what it usually makes, though the response has inspired her and her husband to keep it open.

“We just felt we wanted to come in and see what we could do … people were very appreciative,” she said. “You know if we’re able to do it, it’s always better to be open, better than not.”

Despite this, Browns said it is likely Eat Unique will close before the week is out.

“It’s going to be very very difficult to keep our heads above the water with this … restaurants run on a pretty tight margin in general,” she said.

Michelle Mazzella, the co-owner of Pamela’s Oakland location, said her restaurant tried its hand at doing take-out only on Monday but found it wasn’t making enough to sustain paying utilities, wages and other expenses. The diner is officially closed for the next two weeks starting Tuesday.

Mazzella said she wished restaurants had more time to prepare to operate without dine-in service, stating that the state government essentially gave businesses a “12-hour notice.” She added that she’s anxious for a return to normalcy.

“I kept saying today they could have given us one more day, let us deplete some of our stock, there was a lot of food we had to give away,” she said. “I’m hoping it’s only two weeks and they don’t extend it, because it’s just gonna be catastrophic at that point, with no income for a lot of people.”

Jason Li, the general manager of Szechuan Express, said the restaurant will close for two weeks with tentative plans to reopen on April 1. He gave his employees two weeks off with pay and is discussing installing a drive-through with a contractor.

“We told all employees to be home with their families,” he said.

Lee said Spice Island having to close dine-in service will hurt his front-of-house workers, especially because they rely on tips for much of their income.

“A lot of this is the anxiety about whether or not to cut our losses just to stay open,” he said.  “We’re in an ‘at least pay the rent’ kind of mentality. We’re going to try to keep as many people employed as possible.”

According to Mazzella, following the closure of Pamela’s, many of her employees are now without work and have filed for unemployment compensation.

“We’re going to do our best to help them, see what we can do to help get them through this,” she said.

Lee said although the state order is affecting many business owners, he’s glad it was made so that restaurants and bars have a clear answer as to what to do.

“Either do it or don’t do it, because if you just ask people they will avoid it. You’re not pushing them to do the right thing,” he said.

He added that Spice Island is also trying to determine the risk of staying open while social distancing is being encouraged.

“Even if it’s just not as much contact, having some contact if people come in is a calculated risk … we’re weighing our options and really playing it by ear,” he said.

Browns said for now, workers at Eat Unique are being as diligent as possible about cleaning and sanitizing the area. She approved of Wolf making the order regarding dine-in service and hopes stronger measures will be taken at the federal level to combat the spread of COVID-19.

“Certainly we understand the ‘why’ behind why things are being done, it’s just going to be difficult for us as of right now,” she said.

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