WVHTA executive director eyeing a comeback for restaurant industry with loosened restrictions

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Richie Heath, West Virginia Hospitality & Travel Association Executive Director is excited in the direction that restaurants in the state are headed since the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions by Gov. Jim Justice in the past weeks.

Restaurants are allowed to be open at 100% capacity as of a March 5 order by Justice, and Heath told MetroNews the progression to full capacity has made for a comeback of sorts. He said one Charleston restaurant reported to him that it had the most seats occupied last weekend than in almost a year.

“Vaccinations have been pushed out more, warm weather is coming. We are also seeing an increase in foot traffic and folks are getting back out and enjoying outdoor dining. In the last several weeks, in talking to our member restaurants and others, it seems like business is picking up,” Heath said.

Richie Heath

Heath said he is confident in restaurant worker’s safety with vaccinations being opened to all West Virginians 16 years of age and older. Service workers protested on February 22 outside the state Capitol for vaccine priority, a day after Justice allowed restaurants to move from 50 to 75% capacity.

The open eligibility for vaccines for most West Virginians was approved on Monday.

“Everybody that wants a vaccine can get a vaccine. We are hearing good responses workers in terms of response times in getting in with local health departments and other avenues such as Walgreens,” Heath said.

Congregating in large groups near the entrances of restaurants and bars is still not allowed, Justice said in his order. His indoor mask mandate remains in effect for all public places.

Live music is allowed back in the state, the governor announced on Wednesday. Heath said that was one of the biggest questions his association has gotten over the past few months from the tourism industry, including from restaurants.

Heath also welcomed the ability for fairs, festivals and other similar events to open back up May 1 after nearly a year of closure. He said those types of events are an anchor to communities and drive business everywhere.

“You’re going to have increased foot traffic. You are going to have folks coming into town, enjoying weekends, things like that. Our hope is you’ll see a lot of people happy to return to some semblance of normal,” he said.

One concept created during the pandemic that restaurant owners are pushing to stay is the ability to expand outdoor dining and alcohol sales. Heath said HB 2025, stated to provide liquor, wine, and beer licensees with some new concepts developed during the State of Emergency utilizing new technology to provide greater freedom to operate in a safe and responsible manner, would allow outdoor street dining to continue.

Heath said the bill, currently in Senate Judiciary, is expected to cross the finish line before the end of the session on April 10.

“That would among other things, make permanent the framework for the outdoor dining and street dining and give municipalities a lot of flexibility in terms of working with their restaurants and shops. It provides an atmosphere like we see down on Capitol Street in Charleston when the street is closed on the weekends,” Heath said.

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