Pennsylvania officially waives restaurant licensing fees

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The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board waived licensing fees for bars and restaurants on Wednesday, less than a week after the governor suggested the move as a short-term remedy for the industry hardest hit by his pandemic restrictions.

The 2-1 decision saves licensed establishments $27.7 million, according to the PLCB.

“The PLCB did its due diligence in evaluating our authority to waive fees authorized by various state laws, as well as the fiscal impact of doing so,” Board Chairman Tim Holden said. “We believe it’s the right thing to do in support of our restaurants, bars, and gathering places, so we’re glad next year to ease the financial burden to some extent for these local businesses.”

Mike Negra, the lone dissenting vote, said he wants relief for bars and restaurants, but believed the board lacked the authority to waive statutorily established fees.

“This fee waiver is the equivalent of the PLCB legislating, rather than administering current law, and legislating is the role of the Pennsylvania Senate, House and governor,” he said.

Legislative Republicans likewise dismiss the move as “too little, too late” for an industry battered by the governor’s “draconian” economic restrictions, first imposed in March. Since then, more than a quarter of the state’s licensed establishments say they may face permanent closure if capacity limits and alcohol restrictions aren’t lifted soon.

Sen. Pat Stefano, R-Fayette, said the decision “fails to recognize” that many license holders won’t survive long enough to cash in on the benefit.

He was among the majority of Republicans voting to lift restrictions on restaurants and bars so long as social distancing policies remained in place. Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed at least two separate bills on the matter, citing concerns over public safety. The Department of Health said this week more than half of the COVID-19 patients who responded to contact tracing questions said they frequented a restaurant in the two weeks prior to testing positive.

“Offering a waiver for renewal fees gives relief on the wrong side of the ledger,” Stefano said. “They are concerned about finding a way to remain open a week or just another day. What they really need is to be allowed to reopen and generate revenue, not cut expenses.”

Wolf and Democrats suggest some of the unspent CARES Act funding – to the tune of more than $1 billion – could be funneled to struggling bars and restaurants.

Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, said waiving fees represents a small piece of a much larger relief package needed at the state level – something he implored the General Assembly to tackle when they return to session next month.

“Clearly, more needs to be done to help small business taverns and licensed restaurants that have sacrificed the most of any industry during this pandemic,” he said. “They have been the tip of the spear in this battle since day one, and have played an important role to first flatten the curve and later getting school children back in class.”

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