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How Pa. restaurants plan to survive the winter with indoor dining restrictions in place

For restaurants, curbside delivery, drive-thru options and outdoor bubble dining may be the trifecta of survival during the pandemic.

MECHANICSBURG, Pa. — As winter approaches, restaurants are looking for creative ways to stay afloat through the coronavirus pandemic. Foodservice businesses who complete the state’s self-certification process are allowed to host up to 50 percent of their capacity for indoor dining, but otherwise, they are limited to 25 percent.

Employment in the food industry has taken a direct hit as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many restaurants have shuttered their doors indefinitely, some permanently, after facing mandated shutdown orders and customer capacity limits for indoor dining.

“We lost Bricco. That was a staple downtown since 2006. They’re gone. I don’t understand what else any of us can do, but to think outside of the box,” said Ann Marie Nelms, owner and executive chef at Thea, a restaurant in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County.

Forget the box. Restaurant owners are thinking outside of the bubble. To continue with outdoor dining through the winter, Nelms bought five Alvantor tents to serve customers at Thea.

“They are snow proof, wind proof, and they’re clear so it looks like you’re sitting in a bubble,” Nelms added. “Each one has its own heater, Bluetooth speaker and it has mood lighting.”

Nelms said the outdoor bubbles are sanitized with a fogging machine after every use and they take 15 minutes to flip. They will cost customers an extra $15 during the week and $25 on weekends.

Other restaurants are following the trend. The owner of Cinder Inn in Stroud Township installed four heated domes for outdoor dining in chilly weather. S'Mores Trailside Dining at Barley Creek Brewing Company near Tannersville has turned campsites into dining spaces, using picnic tables and Adirondack chairs that surround a fire pit.

Harper’s Garden in Philadelphia has added individual, heated greenhouses for customers during the wintry weather. However, the private outdoor dining comes at a price. Customers must spend a minimum of $200.

Early on, restaurants looked for ways to make dining out safer during the pandemic. Many restaurant owners and managers are looking into indoor air purification solutions to provide a safer indoor environment. Some companies are assisting restaurants and lounge owners in reducing airborne transmission risk by developing portable air purifiers built for this market.

However, the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association said most restaurant owners and managers discovered that upgrading HVAC systems to meet air purification requirements is too expensive and not economical.

It seems curbside delivery, drive-thru and outdoor bubble dining may be the trifecta of survival during the pandemic.

“I put every moment of my life into this business. This is what I have. This is what I worked so hard for and I’m not willing to give up until I exhaust every way to make it happen,” Nelms declared.

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