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Pandemic limits on alcohol, indoor dining fuel a restaurant rebellion in Pennsylvania

PITTSBURGH — Since 1959, Al’s Cafe has been known for cold beer, hearty hoagies and the occasional coconut shrimp platter. But since the coronavirus outbreak, the Bethel Park eatery has become the staging ground for an unlikely anti-government rebellion.

First came complaints that owner Rod Ambrogi and his patrons were failing to abide by a statewide mask mandate imposed in July by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat. Ambrogi has since put on a mask, but he refuses to prevent customers from bellying up to the bar in defiance of state rules strictly limiting indoor dining.

“I can see [wearing] the mask now. But the rest of it is stupid,” said Ambrogi, 74, who has rallied local tavern owners to defy the rules. “There are people going out of business every day around here.”

Six months into the coronavirus pandemic, restrictions on dining have left restaurants and taverns across the nation struggling to stay afloat. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has blamed President Donald Trump for a bungled pandemic response that has left at least 190,000 dead and millions unemployed. But in Pennsylvania, a crucial swing state Trump carried by just 44,000 votes in 2016, a debate is raging over whether the Republicans in Washington or the Democrats in Harrisburg bear more responsibility for the industry’s economic pain.

Nationally, jobs in food service and drinking places fell 49% from February to April, according to Gus Faucher, chief economist for Pittsburgh’s PNC Financial Services Group. In Pennsylvania, the job loss was steeper, at 59%. And in the Pittsburgh metropolitan statistical area, which includes seven counties in the state’s southwest corner, those jobs plummeted by 62%.

While some have bounced back, July figures show that Pennsylvania bars and restaurants are still hurting. In Pittsburgh, only about a third of lost food and drink jobs have returned, leaving about 33,000 people still unemployed.

“Who are those 33,000 people out of work?” Faucher said. “And who are they going to hold responsible?”

For some, the answer is the governor. After closing restaurants and bars along with other nonessential businesses when the pandemic struck in mid-March, Wolf began permitting them to reopen this spring. But when the number of new infections began rising, the state health commissioner cranked up restrictions on indoor dining, a key vector of infection.

Under the new rules, alcohol could be sold only if customers also ordered food. Sidling up to a bar for a brew was forbidden.

Most infuriating to owners: Eateries that had been preparing to reopen at 50 percent capacity were suddenly told they would have to operate at 25% capacity. Pennsylvania is one of just three states to impose such severe limits, according to a database compiled by the National Restaurant Association, though some local jurisdictions have done so.

Many bar and restaurant owners say the state is denying them the right to earn a living. Rui Lucas, 45, who owns three restaurants in suburban Philadelphia, formed a trade association this summer to push for counties, rather than the state, to set coronavirus standards for bars and restaurants.

“Of course, we’re all scared. On many levels,” Lucas said. “We know we are at the fate of the virus. But we are also at the fate of Governor Wolf.”

State health officials defend the decision to keep a tight rein on bars and restaurants, saying it is based on data, including information from people who tested positive after dining out. The number of new cases has fallen, and White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx praised the state earlier this month, saying only five others have a lower case count.

Still, Sarah Boateng, executive deputy secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said she understands the blowback. “I hear the frustration of the restaurant owners. I appreciate it,” she said. “We know it’s not been easy.”

In general, state residents give Wolf good marks for his handling of the crisis. According to an August Monmouth University poll, 62 percent of Pennsylvania voters said the governor has done a good job, while more than half the state’s voters — 53% — said they disapproved of Trump’s handling of the virus.

But approval for Wolf’s performance slipped from 67 percent in July. And the same survey showed Biden leading Trump by just four points — 49% to 45% — down from a 13-point advantage a month earlier.

Lara Putnam, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh who monitors political activity on Facebook and other social media sites, said she sees “an intensity of agitation online, especially farther outside of metropolitan areas, to blame Tom Wolf” for the grim economic situation. The state’s overall unemployment rate was 13.7% in July, the most recent available, significantly above the national July average of 10.2%.

“If you’re a waitress who has lost all your hours,” Putnam said, “who are you going to blame?”

Ambrogi, who so far has called back only 40 of 60 employees at Al’s Cafe, knows precisely whom he blames. He blasts Wolf’s restrictions on dining as “unconstitutional.”

“Look, I know it’s a bad virus. And no one wants to see anyone get sick,” Ambrogi said. “But it comes to a point: The general public has had enough of this.”

On Tuesday, with new infections down, Wolf granted restaurateurs a reprieve: Starting Sept. 21, they can operate at 50% capacity. But they will also have to stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m., an hour earlier.

“We wanted a ham and he gave us a hot dog,” complained Ambrogi, a stalwart Trump supporter. Of the new time for last call, he said, “I don’t know what that will mean” for business.

Since leading a local revolt against the restrictions, Ambrogi has corresponded with restaurant owners across the state. He said he has also written to Wolf and reached out to state lawmakers from both parties. Only Republicans responded, he said.

“Where are the Democrats? Are they waiting to make Trump look bad?” said Phil Catagnus, one of Ambrogi’s brothers in arms and the owner of the Double Visions go-go bar outside Philadelphia. “We are the people stuck in the middle of this.”

Because people can no longer drink without ordering food, Catagnus, 64, joked that he now sells “virus-killing hot dogs.” Still, the restrictions on indoor dining are killing business, he said.

“I’m very grateful for being open. But the margins are so small,” said Catagnus, who plans to vote for Biden despite feeling neglected by Democrats in Harrisburg.

Meredith Meyer Grelli grew up in Pittsburgh’s North Hills, teaches entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University and runs Wigle Whiskey, the first distillery in Pittsburgh since Prohibition. Before the pandemic, nearly 150 customers showed up for Saturday tours. These days, Grelli relies heavily on bottle sales to stay afloat.

“What’s frustrating for bars and restaurants is they have been singled out, but there has been no effort to provide specific support,” said Grelli, 35. “We are fortunate that we have bottle sales. But this capacity issue? No one builds a business to operate at 25% or 50%.”

Grelli said that she doesn’t blame the state for her problems but that she understands why many bar owners are angry.

The distillery “gave up on profitability a long time ago,” she said. “We are bleeding money like anyone else.”

Lawyer-cum-brewer Peter Kurzweg co-owns the Independent Brewing Company and two other craft beer halls in Pittsburgh. He used to pack 120 people into his hipster beer room in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Friday nights. Today, he has no indoor seating because he thinks ventilation is key to controlling the virus.

Kurzweg, too, is unhappy with the statewide restrictions. “I have lost count of the number of good restaurants that have closed,” he said.

But Kurzweg, 38, said he places greater blame on Trump. While countries like Germany kept the virus at bay and largely have returned to normal life, he said, the White House failed to gain control of the outbreak, allowing it to become a national calamity.

“I have mixed feelings about what the state did. They needed to find a happy balance,” Kurzweg said. But “fundamentally, I attribute what we have now to a lack of a strong federal response and strong federal guidance.”

Gettysburg fire company gets big grant to help recruit volunteers

As strains on volunteer fire companies continue to grow, a $289,000 federal grant will help United Hook & Ladder recruit and retain firefighters, Chief Steve Rabine said.

Help is crucial because “the volunteer department is dying as we know it,” and a switch to paid firefighters would add “millions and millions” of dollars yearly to the local tax burden, Rabine said.

It is “absolutely” becoming harder to find volunteers, Rabine said. Cultural and economic changes have greatly increased work demands, led to jobs located farther from home, and radically reduced families’ free time, he said.

A bigger membership is needed to maintain United’s ability to answer calls, Rabine said, which is why “the goal of the whole program is to recruit 20 members a year” through the grant’s three-year life.

To do so, the grant will provide funds for a school program to “get kids interested in the fire service,” equipment for new members, training and conferences for existing members, physical examinations, and extensive marketing efforts ranging from billboards to social media, Rabine said.

Awarded Aug. 26, the grant is from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) through its Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) program. The latter’s purpose is to help fire departments “increase or maintain the number of ‘front line’ firefighters available in their communities,” according United’s Facebook page.

For younger people, becoming a volunteer offers significant advantages beyond helping the community, Rabine said.

Volunteering can help people “get way ahead of the curve” if they’re interested in a career in emergency service, Rabine said.

About 10 United volunteers are also paid career firefighters in the Baltimore-Washington metro area, he said.

“They got their start” as volunteers, Rabine said.

Kids as young as 14 can become junior firefighters and begin hands-on training in skills that lead toward “making decent money in a career setting,” often without a college degree, he said. Those under 18 are not involved in firefighting inside buildings or in other hazardous work, he said.

United was able to win the grant in part because the government recognized the efficiencies it has gained through multiple merger, Rabine said. A professional grant writer helped “tell our story,” he said.

United, also known as Company 33, began in 2009 via a merger of the New Oxford Abbottstown companies, according to its website. Bonneauville’s company joined in 2016, and Hampton came on board last year. Stations remain in all four communities.

The SAFER grant is a big win, Rabine said, but in this difficult time, United’s hopes remain realistic.

“Our goal is to make it 10 more years,” he said, and “it gets harder and harder.”

Gettysburg man accused of beating dog

A Hanover man is accused of animal cruelty after a security video allegedly shows him slamming a dog to the ground in McSherrystown.

John Disla, 22, was charged with one misdemeanor count each of neglect of and cruelty to an animal, plus a summary charge of cruelty to an animal, according to a magisterial docket.

Adams County Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ACSPCA) Humane Officer Abigail Avery filed the charges Sept. 4.

Approximately 10:15 a.m. Aug. 30, McSherrystown police asked Avery to meet McSherrystown Police Officer Stephen Smyers, who was on West View Drive with a dog that was described as being “severely beaten,” according to Avery’s affidavit of probable cause.

The dog was lying on concrete “surrounded by neighbors” who said they “witnessed the attack,” according to the affidavit.

The dog “was rushed” to Rossmoyne Animal Emergency Trauma Center in Mechanicsburg, where injuries including a broken leg, broken blood vessels in one eye, and bruising of internal organs were treated, according to the affidavit. After surgery, a veterinarian said the broken leg did not occur Aug. 30, but 15 to 20 days earlier, according to the affidavit.

The owner of the residence, who was not home at the time, shared a security video with authorities, according to the affidavit. The owner, a relative of Disla, identified him as the suspect and the dog’s owner, according to the affidavit.

Disla took the female pit bull to a relative’s house “because he didn’t want her anymore,” according to Avery’s criminal complaint.

“In the video, you can see Mr. Disla pick up a brindle dog by her head and slam her to the ground. You can hear the dog hit the ground” and make a yipping sound, according to the affidavit.

“You can also hear the neighbor yelling at Mr. Disla to ‘stop,’” after which he “runs to his car and drives off, leaving the dog” in the yard, according to the affidavit.

The neighbor who shouted accused Disla of “hitting and kicking the dog in the head and body before he picked her up and slammed her to the ground,” according to the affidavit of probable cause.

The relative contacted Avery at 3:47 p.m. Aug. 30 to say Disla wanted to “turn himself in,” after which Avery called him and arranged to meet him Aug. 31 at the Adams County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, according to the affidavit.

Disla “was crying and said he knew what he did was wrong and is taking full responsibility for his actions. He stated that his landlord found out he had the dog and was going to kick him out. He stated that he was ‘freaking out,’” according to the affidavit.

Asked about the broken leg, Disla said “he had a ferret running in his apartment and the dog went after it, so he kicked her,” and the incident happened “about two weeks ago,” according to the affidavit.

Asked why he didn’t take the dog to a veterinarian at the time, “he stated he didn’t have the money,” according to the affidavit.

A preliminary hearing is set for Nov. 18, according to the docket.

Donations are being sought “to help with the hospital bills, surgery and anything else this little girl might need. Even though we will be asking for restitution from the defendant, it could take years to see that money if ever,” according to a post on the ACSPCA’s Facebook page. Donation information is available via Facebook, 717-334-8876, or

An updated post on Sept. 3 said foster care had been arranged for the dog, who has been renamed “Justice.”

A group of individuals, some armed, talk near an entrance to the Gettysburg National Cemetery in Gettysburg National Military Park July 4 in Gettysburg.