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May 15, 2020

Pennsylvania unveils penalties for restaurants reopening dining service too soon

Safety inspectors will pursue reports of businesses that violate safety guidelines

Restaurants COVID-19
Restaurants Pennsylvania COVID-19 Source/

Pennsylvania restaurants will be subject to food safety inspections by the department of agriculture if they violate the state's orders surrounding the resumption of dine-in service.

Pennsylvania restaurants that prematurely reopen dining services amid the COVID-19 crisis could face food license suspensions and hefty fines. 

The Department of Agriculture has outlined its plan for enforcing restaurant violations surrounding dine-in service as the state begins a gradual reopening process. 

In the current stage of the reopening plan, restaurants in all Pennsylvania counties are barred from providing dine-in service. They will only be permitted to do so once they move on from the red and yellow phases to the green stage of the plan. Restaurants are allowed to offer take-out and delivery service.

The violation enforcement protocol released by the agriculture department will be in effect both before and after counties enter the green stage. It will be handled in close cooperation with the Pennsylvania State Police and Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

"It's important that Pennsylvania's restaurants don't stray from the course now, we've come too far, sacrificed too much to change our path," Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said. "Restaurants are encouraged to continue only offering their services for carry-out or delivery."

Restaurants must comply with the state's worker safety order and guidance to ensure sanitary conditions, appropriate social distancing and respond to employees diagnosed with COVID-19.

Food safety inspectors will respond to reports of restaurants offering dine-in service in violation of the state's orders and take the following actions once they are confirmed.

•Warning letter from the Departments of Agriculture and Health

•Follow up inspection

•If still in violation of the order at follow up inspection, adjudication to suspend the businesses retail food license

•If the business continues to operate after license is revoked, citations will be filed with the magisterial district judge.

•The department may pursue civil penalties of up to $10,000 per day of violation

Reports related to food safety concerns or restaurants offering dine-in services can be made online through the department's Food Safety Complaint Form.

Restaurants that are inspected as a result of such complaints will have public reports with details of violations filed in Pennsylvania's restaurant inspection database, publicly accessibly via the department's website or the free EatSafePA mobile app for both Apple and Android devices.

"We know that people dining together in a restaurant puts many people at risk of exposure, including patrons and employees," Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said. "It is essential that restaurants comply with guidance and continue with carry-out and delivery options at this time. Social distancing is a primary tool to fight this virus and we must stay the course."

The National Restaurant Association reported last month that 96% of Pennsylvania restaurant owners have had to lay off or furlough workers since the beginning of March. An estimated 332,000 Pennsylvania restaurant employees have lost jobs, accounting for about 81% of the workforce.

Philadelphia restaurants are hoping that an expansion of outdoor seating may soon provide a provisional solution to recoup some lost business, but guidance around this issue has not yet been developed.

Nationally, sales at food services and drinking establishments declined 23% in March and 26.5% from their February level, according to federal retail data. The industry expects that sales will decline between 14% and 24% in 2020.