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COVID-19 has made a world of changes worldwide, and will continue to do so. Susanne Sager isn’t pleased with the effect it has had on her business, but has come to terms with it.
In some ways, in fact, she embraces it.
Sager and her husband, Matt, own Palazzo 1837 Ristorante, a fine-dining establishment on Washington Road in North Strabane Township. They’ve owned and operated the restaurant for 10 years, about a three-minute trot from The Meadows Racetrack & Casino, where they have cultivated a devoted following and become a popular events destination.
Yet next Friday, after getting the green light to reopen to indoor dining, the Sagers will make their own transition. Their Italian restaurant will become Pagan Fire House of Barbecue.
“We’ve changed our business concept,” Susanne Sager said Friday, an hour after Gov. Tom Wolf announced that Washington County and most of Southwestern Pennsylvania will move from the yellow phase to the least-restrictive green, effective at 12:01 a.m. next Friday. “Barbecue is delicious and pleasing, and we will have lots of craft beers.”
Gyms, health and wellness facilities and casinos can resume operations then. So may theaters, shopping malls, barber shops and restaurants. Yet that least-restrictive phase includes a major restriction: 50% occupancy, no more, for all of those businesses. And that’s why Palazzo is going from red sauce to barbecue sauce.
“It’s almost impossible to be profitable with 50% occupancy,” Sager said. “The gatherings are restrictive, and we are known for our parties – two or three on weekdays, as many as six on Saturdays. We figured our fine-dining concept would not survive 2020.”
The Sagers have been selling barbecue by takeout on Fridays and Saturdays over the past month, and Sager said that has gone well. So they made a change.
“This is bittersweet, but we figured we should do this instead of running into trouble later in the year.”
Like a zealous teen with a set of wheels, Lisa Aprea is thrilled to get a green light. She is one of the owners of Chicco Baccello, a cafe and coffee shop on South Main Street in Washington.
“I’m pretty excited, but I really feel it’s past due,” she said, while admitting she anticipated another weeklong delay.
Aprea said the owners, who have provided takeout throughout the pandemic, plan to set up more tables for outdoor dining Monday and are preparing tables inside for proper social distancing.
Being closed for indoor dining has afforded them opportunities to plan, to fine-tune their online ordering and to assess their needs. Chicco will be adding espresso machines and other equipment.
“We had been on such an upswing on South Main, then we took 10 steps back,” Aprea said. “We have catching up to do, but I have no doubt we’ll be back to where we were.”
Hairstylists will be back in style, which pleases Kathy Swihart of Hair and There Salon in Washington. Green, for now, may be her favorite color.
“I’m happy to get back to work because I’m out of things to do,” she said. “I’ve spring-cleaned, painted and purged. I’m not a person who can stay at home.”
She said clients seeking haircuts and color have been texting and calling her for weeks, eager for the salon to reopen. “They’ve been miserable.”
Amanda Mankey, owner of Amanda’s Expressions in Washington, said her salon will spend the next week making sure it’s ready to open safely Friday.
“We want to reopen. It’s our livelihood. Without reopening, people will go elsewhere, to Ohio or West Virginia,” Mankey said.
She said Friday that her phone has “been blowing up” since Wolf’s announcement. “We hope everyone’s patient. I think we have a plan in place to get as many people as we can, as safely as we can,” said Mankey. “Our clients are excited.”
Civil Knox, general manager of Washington Crown Center, embraces the thumb’s-up from Wolf, but said the North Franklin Township mall may reopen a little later than June 5 because of staffing and cleaning issues. The place has been shuttered for more than two months.
Knox said Crown Center will reduce hours initially – 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday – but that will be temporary.
Rural King, Ross Dress for Less and Marshalls are open, and Garfield’s Restaurant and JoAnn Fabrics offer curbside/takeout orders only.
The food court area, Knox said, will not be available initially for dine in, but some takeout will be available.
Lori Coury eagerly anticipates next weekend. “We’ll try to start getting things back to normal, and get our employees employed again,” said the co-owner of River House Cafe in Charleroi. She and husband Michael have had the place for 12 years.
She said she they hope the 50% occupancy guideline “does not last forever,” although “fortunately, the River House is big. It’s not hard for us to space tables apart.
River House Cafe will, at first, be open Wednesday through Saturday. It has provided a delivery service since it opened and has offered takeout throughout the pandemic.
“We don’t know what to expect,” Lori said. “We’re not sure about staffing. But it seems like people are eager to get out. We’ll adjust accordingly.”
There were a lot of smiles around Southwestern Pennsylvania on Friday afternoon. Jeff Kotula, president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, certainly had one. He said in a statement:
“We are proud that our Washington County businesses and residents committed to the (state) Department of Health’s stay-at-home guidelines and practiced social distancing. Their dedication has yielded results. Washington County is now ‘green’ and our economy can begin to fully reopen and our citizens can once again enjoy their communities.”
Staff writers Barbara Miller and Karen Mansfield contributed to this story.
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