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Favorable response to dining upgrade, but it's not 100%

For Mike Williamson, half-capacity is the equivalent of a glass half-full.

“Anything that helps us move toward a more normal working environment is good,” said the operations manager of Solomon’s Seafood in Washington. “We want to reopen, but 50% is a step in the right direction.”

Williamson, second-generation operator of the Hall Avenue restaurant, was responding to Gov. Tom Wolf’s announcement Tuesday morning that restaurants statewide may increase indoor seating capacity from 25% to 50%, effective Sept. 21. This is a reversal from July 15, when indoor dining was reduced from 50% to 25% at a time COVID-19 cases were accelerating.

Solomon’s has been a family-run business for 32 years, launched by Williamson’s parents. The son said the restaurant benefits from strong community support and a healthy takeout business. And a healthy-sized dining area.

“We can handle 160 customers, so if we go to 80, we can rehire staff,” Williamson said. “And our employees want to work. That would take our serving staff from four to nine, and we probably could add one more chef.”

He estimates that between 25% indoor capacity and takeout, Solomon’s is operating at about 35% of where it should be.

“That’s above what was expected, but that’s obviously not in our long-term plan,” he said. “You can’t survive.

“The point is the entire hospitality industry is in a ‘not-lose-money’ mode. (The Paycheck Protection Program) helped, but that money is out. We have to find a way to do more business or make a hard decision.

“We’re not close to the hard-decision process, but some people are cutting bait and just leaving.”

John Longstreet knows the hospitality industry well. He is president and chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Longstreet said he is “pleased” that Wolf “finally” raised the capacity to 50% from 25%, “which not only was not fair, but not sustainable for restaurants.” He is not happy, though, that bar seating is still forbidden; there is now a 10 p.m. curfew on serving alcohol with food; and that private events “were not addressed.”

“No rehearsal dinners, no birthday parties,” which, he said, hospitality venues can better supervise COVID-19 restrictions better than residents “at backyards.”

Wolf also now requires restaurants to self-certify they are complying with pandemic safety measures.

State Rep. Pam Snyder, D- Jefferson, said she applauds the governor’s decision to raise the indoor capacity. She sent a letter to Wolf last month, asking him to boost the restaurant industry. One of her recommendations: return to 50%.

Snyder said in a statement: “While I agree we must all do our part to keep the virus from spreading, these businesses have been doing the right thing all along to keep their staff and customers safe. ... I will continue to push to allow our restaurants to fully reopen, because I know they can do so safely.”

Jeff Kotula, president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, endorses the change as well.

Kotula said in a statement: “Our local restaurant owners have worked hard to follow the (state) Department of Health’s COVID-19 guidelines to keep their staffs and customers safe. Their efforts have resulted in decreased infection rates, and now the opportunity for restaurants to increase their occupancy rates to 50%.

“While the virus is still present in our county and we still need to actively follow the social distancing guidelines prescribed by our health officials, it is clear that everyone working together to mitigate the virus is demonstrating results and having a positive impact on our economy.”


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Gov. Wolf to ease COVID-19 restriction on restaurants

Gov. Tom Wolf will ease COVID-19 mitigation on restaurants and allow them to seat diners at 50% of their indoor occupancy rates in two weeks.

Wolf’s order Tuesday will take effect Sept. 21 and require alcohol sales to be limited to food sales until 10 p.m.

“We are ready to lift that partially,” Wolf said Tuesday morning during a press conference called to ask the Republican-controlled Legislature to extend the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.

He said he ordered restaurants in July to limit seating to 25% occupancy, following federal guidance, when the state was experiencing a new surge in COVID-19 cases.

“We were starting to see a troubling rise,” Wolf said.

The state’s COVID-19 case rate has since been reduced, and Allegheny County reported Tuesday that it had gone four consecutive days without a virus-related death.

There were no new deaths reported, either, in Washington, Greene and Fayette counties.

Washington County recorded eight new cases of the novel coronavirus Tuesday, taking its total to 1,150 since March. There were no new cases announced in Greene or Fayette counties.

Wolf’s updated order also requires restaurants to self-certify that they are complying with social distancing, masking and other requirements to help slow the spread of the disease.

Restaurants may choose to not self-certify with no additional penalties. However, uncertified restaurants must remain at 25% indoor capacity, according to the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

Restaurant owners should contact covidselfcert@pa.gov for additional information on the self-certifying process.

Meanwhile, state Health Secretary Rachel Levine reminded the public Tuesday that is more important now than ever to get a flu shot because of the pandemic.

“This year things will be even more dangerous,” Levine said.


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Greene County woman on life support in S.C.

Donations have been pouring in from across the Pittsburgh region for a Greene County woman on life support in a hospital in South Carolina.

Morgan Yoney was on vacation with her family in Myrtle Beach last week when she became ill. Morgan has cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder in which the lungs and digestive system are clogged with mucus, often resulting in the need for vital organ transplants. Morgan has had several transplants, including a second double-lung transplant in 2016 and a kidney donated by her mother in 2017.

According to a family friend, Jessica Murphy, Morgan had contracted pneumonia while on vacation. The infection led to bacteria entering her blood stream, causing her to become septic. Then her kidney stopped working.

“They’re afraid the kidney may not bounce back,” Morgan’s mother, Tammy Yoney, said in a Facebook video update Monday. “She may end up having to need another kidney transplant.”

Morgan is in a transplant hospital in Charleston, but her family and team of Pittsburgh doctors would like to return her home for treatment.

“The team here has agreed that it would be better for her to be in Pittsburgh, not only for us to be around our family, but just because the team knows her well,” Tammy said in the video.

Tammy said in Monday’s video that the Charleston hospital is doing “all they can,” but that Morgan is still “declining.” Tammy said she’s confident that Morgan’s Pittsburgh doctors will be able to do more for her treatment.

“To an insurance company, one transplant hospital isn’t any better than another, but we all know that’s not true,” Tammy said in the video.

Since Morgan is now on life support, moving her isn’t as simple as finding someone to make the drive in an ambulance or fly her in a helicopter, Tammy said. Morgan is on a ventilator and round-the-clock dialysis.

“Unfortunately, it’s not that easy because Morgan’s critical,” Tammy said in the video.

Tammy posted a picture on Facebook Monday of her hand next to Morgan’s. No one was allowed to touch Morgan because doctors fear any response from her to stimuli could cause her blood pressure to drop.

“I’m not allowed to touch her but I sure hope she can feel me sitting, praying next to her,” Tammy wrote in the caption on the photo.

In another Facebook video Tuesday afternoon, Tammy said she is allowed to touch Morgan and hold her hand now. She said that Morgan was stable Tuesday, with no improvement or decline, as she is heavily sedated.

According to Tammy’s Tuesday video, hospital staff woke Morgan once Tuesday, and “she woke up fighting mad,” Tammy said.

“So they had to hurry up and sedate her again,” Tammy said. “They just wanted to make sure she was able to be aroused.”

The family and doctors are worried insurance won’t cover the cost to transport Morgan by a medical plane, which would likely be required to continue life support services. So, Tammy posted a link to her PayPal account and Murphy started a GoFundMe page to collect donations to help pay for the transport. The GoFundMe, “Help Morgan get Transported to Pittsburgh!” has more than 330 donors, 2,800 shares and has raised more than $15,000.

“I thank you guys so much,” Tammy said in Monday’s video. “No amount is too little, anything to get her home. If I have to beg, I will. It’s my kid, it’s her life.”

Murphy said many people have been reaching out on the fundraiser page to help Morgan get home.

“They’re super-hopeful that she’ll be able to get out today,” Murphy said Tuesday.

In Tuesday’s video, Tammy said they have a plane waiting in Pittsburgh to fly to Charleston by 6:30 p.m. All they’re waiting on now is for the insurance company to approve the transfer of care.

“I’m not really sure what the hold-up is,” Tammy said in Tuesday’s video. “You guys have all made it possible for us. I still don’t have an exact number, but we’ll take care of that later. If we get $30,000, we won’t be like swimming in debt, if nothing else. Like I said, you do what you have to do for your kid.”

Tammy said that she’ll be allowed to fly with Morgan. Meanwhile, Morgan’s father, Bob Yoney, left their Charleston hotel Tuesday and headed for Pittsburgh, she said.

Murphy said the family is also hoping that UPMC Presbyterian Hospital will have an open bed in the intensive care unit. Murphy said that as of Tuesday morning, only one bed in ICU was open.

“My fear is that they’re going to fill that bed before we get her up there,” Tammy said in Tuesday’s video. “So pray that doesn’t happen.”

Tammy mentioned in Monday’s video that she’s the only one in their family allowed to see Morgan due to COVID-19 restrictions. That’s why Tammy pleaded with people watching her video to wear face masks.

“I don’t care if you’re asthmatic,” Tammy said in Monday’s video. “She’s fighting for her life, and they put a mask on her when she goes. When your family member’s back there in the ICU, you’ll know why you need to wear a mask.”

Tammy thanked people for donating to bring Morgan home and encouraged folks to “keep praying, keep sharing” and to “put your mask on.”

“We need COVID to end so Morgan’s family can be with her,” she said in the video.


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$300 UC supplements will start arriving next week

That weekly $300 Lost Wages Assistance benefit should start arriving next week.

State Labor & Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak reminded Pennsylvanians of that Tuesday morning during L&I’s weekly virtual news conference. Claimants who have applied and qualified for the federal program could receive their first payment as early as next Monday.

The department announced Friday that it had instituted the program weeks earlier than anticipated. The LWA program was set up in early August through a $44 billion federal grant.

“This program is for claimants who are fully or partly unemployed because of the (COVID-19) pandemic,” Oleksiak said. States can kick in another $100 per week from state funds, but Pennsylvania is does not have the funds to do so.

For residents of the Keystone State, that $300 will replace the weekly $600 payment they were receiving from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, which ended in late July. LWA payments will come in a lump sum for previous claim weeks dating to Aug. 1.

Eligible claimants must have a benefit rate and dependence allowance totaling $100 or more per week in benefits from one of these programs: Regular Unemployment Compensation; Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation; Pandemic Unemployment Assistance; Pennsylvania Extended Benefits; Shared Work or Short-Time Compensation; Trade Readjustment Allowance.

Recipients of benefits from these programs, except for PUA and Shared Work, must apply for LWA by certifying one time that their unemployment or partial unemployment is due to COVID-19. Visit www.uc.pa.gov/cert, log in with your PIN as if filing for a biweekly claim, and select the “Complete LWA Certification” button and fill it out.

Pennsylvania has gotten a bit of a boost from that federal grant, Oleksiak said. The state initially received $1.5 billion, which would have sustained three weeks of $300 benefits. Now it has $2.4 billion, good for five weeks.

The program will end when the $44 billion is gone, which will be by Dec. 27, or if another supplemental program is enacted.

The secretary said his department, since March 15, has disbursed $25 billion in total UC benefits; $4.9 billion in traditional UC; $15.7 billion in FPUC; and $4.7 billion in Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation..

L&I will have its 16th weekly town hall at 1 p.m. Thursday. It is open to the public, by calling 833-380-0719 or live-streaming at https://access.live/PAlabor.