December 11, 2023


Free For All Food

Restaurants along Leechburg Road in Lower Burrell run the gamut of compliance with pandemic restrictions

For business owners like John Clark, of Clark’s Diner in Lower Burrell, the new covid mitigation efforts instituted by Gov. Tom Wolf are as much of a threat to his workers’ livelihood as the virus itself.

As a result, he’s ignoring them and allowing indoor dining to continue — in spite of the governor’s order and rising covid cases.

After weeks spent imploring Pennsylvanians to stay home as much as possible, limit their in-person interactions and wear a mask, Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine issued new orders that, among other restrictions, shut down indoor dining as cases and deaths across the state continue to swell.

The order lasts through 8 a.m. Monday, Jan. 4.

On Saturday, a Trib reporter drove up and down Leechburg Road in Lower Burrell, which boasts of a variety of restaurants and bars that provide a microcosm of what it’s like trying to serve the public — and stay afloat — in a pandemic.

“It’s been a struggle just trying to make ends meet,” Clark said. “Not only me, but the staff. Everybody’s been struggling. We all have kids at home that rely on us working.

”I understand the sentiment of wearing the masks and protecting the ones you love. But when it comes to stealing the livelihood of millions of people, I don’t feel that’s the government’s choice to make. … I feel it’s their responsibility to find a solution to this problem, not the small businesses.”

Clark anticipates that police will eventually stop by his business once word gets out about defying Wolf’s orders, but he believes that’s a risk worth taking to support his and workers’ families.

“People are calling and reporting businesses that are non-compliant,” he said.

There are six workers at Clark’s Diner, including the owner. All wear masks during operation. Customers are spaced at least a table a part for social distancing.

‘We’re not children’

At least a dozen people ate at tables in Clark’s Diner on Saturday.

Tony Fontana of Lower Burrell was one of them.

He said the governor is using the pandemic to treat people like children.

“I think we’re old enough to make our own decisions on how we live our lives,” Fontana said. “We’re not children. We don’t need to be told what to do.”

Deborah Greene of New Kensington said she has eaten at Clark’s Diner many times, and doesn’t plan on changing her routine. She claims the mitigation efforts unfairly target small businesses compared to big box stores.

“Small businesses should have the same opportunity as large businesses or commercial,” Greene said. “Sam’s Club and Walmart, these people make in a day what (Clark’s) going to make this year.”

David “Mogie” Magill, owner of Magill’s Grill & Mogie’s Irish Pub, believes the restrictions are about control, not about safety.

“I was a follower,” Magill said about protocols. “I’m no longer a follower.”

However, the employees wear masks and there are mannequins seated at some tables to help encourage social distancing.

Magill claims there’s not enough scientific evidence that shows restaurants are causing a spike in covid cases.

That’s despite national studies that state health officials point to that say otherwise.

Don’t penalize healthy people

“Rising cases is what they like to use (to justify the restrictions),” Magill said. “Instead of what a free society should do, which is protect the vulnerable and protect those at risk, we’re going to penalize those who are healthy, also.

“We all know that 99% of the people who get this virus recover from it. It’s a fact, and yet we are going to create an even bigger issue with destroying businesses, livelihoods. … There is no bailout, and none of us really want it. We don’t want taxpayer money. We just want the government out of our way and be able to operate our businesses.”

He said his business lost about $92,000 during the mid-March through early-June shutdowns, and about $76,000 in canceled Christmas and holiday parties.

“My employees lost wages, gratuities, Christmas money,” Magill said. “The service industry is being targeted while people of great wealth, corporate wealth, are given a pass. … The sad part about it is that so many people who listen to the governor or watch the news and listen to these mandates believe that we are the enemy.

“They believe that the restaurants and bars and gyms and bowling alleys … are the enemy because we were closed and want to keep our businesses open. They will leave their homes and go shopping among multitudes of people and not even bat an eye because someone told them that’s OK, and that we are evil.”

About 100,000 restaurants in the United States have closed either permanently or long-term due to coronavirus shutdowns this year, according to a survey released in September by the National Restaurant Association.

Breakfast with Santa still held

Not only did the restaurant/bar maintain its indoor dining on day one of the new restrictions, it hosted a Breakfast with Santa event Saturday morning.

About 60 people were inside around 9 a.m. and about 90 around noon. The restaurant can hold about 200 people.

“It was something that was pre-scheduled, something we always do,” Magill said. “I got phone calls from moms crying and upset that they weren’t going to have their children see Santa Claus. I took care of it.”

Magill made a “King Covid Menu” with cheap eats earlier this year when Wolf decreed alcohol could only be sold to someone also buying food. There are $1 slices of pizza and $1 Freedom Fries, a serving with about 25% of the fries in a regular order — a shot at the previous seating capacity restrictions.

Ida: Blame rule breakers, not governor

Other restaurants along Leechburg Road have bought into the governor’s plan.

Ida’s Home Place is a small Italian restaurant a few blocks down in a small strip shopping plaza.

Owner Ida Peluso, who has been in the restaurant business for about 42 years, said the quicker people work together and listen to health experts, the quicker restrictions may be lifted.

“The people who don’t follow the rules make the trouble, not the governor,” Peluso said. “That’s who causes the pandemic to get worse. We’re supposed to wear a mask and people don’t. We’re not supposed to go out. Instead they do it. We’re supposed to follow the rules, and maybe it stops.”

Peluso said she understands why restrictions have been put in place and why they’ve changed throughout the year. She’s very concerned about the recent spike in covid cases.

“I hope and I wish that everybody will be careful and listen because people die from this, and it’s scary,” she said.

Between 10 to 12 people can usually be found inside Ida’s when indoor dining is permitted. The place seats at least 40.

A sign posted on Ida’s door informs customers there will be no indoor dining until at least Jan. 5.

Peluso says she’s staying afloat because of loyal customers. People from the North Hills, South Hills and as far away as Punxsutawney have placed large takeout orders to support the shop.

“I’m very lucky,” she said. “Who supports me is the out-of-towners. My customers are the best people. That’s why I’m surviving. My place is little, but some people come, and I’m not going to break the rules.”

At Villa Ballanca: ‘What can you do?’

Ben Ballanca, one of the owners of Villa Ballanca, said he’s complied with the shutdown in March and will do the same now.

“What can you do?” Ballanca said. “Rather be safe instead of sorry. (The virus) is everywhere in the world. Look at Italy, Germany, France, Spain. It’s all locked down. There’s nothing you can do — it’s a virus.”

The Italian eatery has been in Lower Burrell can seat about 140 people during normal operations. That’s not been possible all year due to the ever-changing restrictions such as being limited to 50%, and then 25%, to no indoor dining at all.

Ballanca said customer support has kept any losses to a minimum.

“We’ll be fine thanks to every person,” he said.

Take-out not new at China Lobster

David Weng, manager of China Lobster, said the new regulations will not impact his restaurant, which he said has not offered dine-in service for the past eight months.

“We’ll take a loss, but we’re only doing takeout,” Weng said while overlooking many takeout order receipts spread on the counter awaiting pick-up.

The restaurant has not been able to offer its highly popular eat-in buffet throughout the pandemic.

Frustration at The Lamp Post

The Lamp Post’s bar area is closed. Only takeout is offered.

Owner Tony Condarcure said if he has to follow the rules about in-door dining and drinking, then all restaurants and bars should do the same.

“I’ve did everything they’ve asked, and they’re going to shut me down,” he said. “We’re the ones struggling.”

Burrell Inn: Use take-out entrance only

The bar and restaurant entrance doors of the Burrell Inn were locked. Drinks and food can be picked up at the store’s front, at the express entrance. Its workers declined to comment.

Tony Kralik of Springdale grabbed some Burrell Inn takeout Saturday.

He said the restrictions aren’t going to make a difference in fighting the virus because there are a lot of people out this time of year holiday shopping.

“I don’t think it’s going to matter,” Kralik said. “You’ve got to go in public regardless.”

Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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