As the coronavirus pandemic stretches on, one group of business owners in Franklin County struggles to stay afloat as the most recent round of safety restrictions cause frustration and financial hardship.

In July, the governor's office issued a new round of guidelines that restaurants across the state are being required to follow, including a drop to 25% occupancy, elimination of bar seating, prohibition of serving alcohol without a meal and more.

Such guidelines hit an already volatile industry hard. Franklin County was no exception.

"Let me just say, at this point, if things continue into the foreseeable future, I can promise you it's unsustainable for any independent restaurant," said John Flannery, owner of John Allison Public House and Franklin County commissioner. "I anticipate that this is going to go into the new year. We will be able to survive that long. But at that point, we're really gonna have to make some decisions on where we go from there."

The Greencastle establishment has been able to remain in business through funding such as the Payment Protection Program and additional low-interest loans.

Fortunately, the community has rallied around businesses such as John Allison Public House to offer its support, Flannery said.

"We've always supported the community very strongly," Flannery said. "Every Sunday we would sponsor a local team organization or nonprofit and give 15% of the day's sales to that organization. We've had to postpone that since the pandemic started, and our sales have drastically declined. But I think that over the years of doing that had garnered a lot of support from the local community. Therefore, they really, really did support us during that carryout portion of the mandate."

The 25% mandate hit John Allison hard as well. The establishment is quite large but the elimination of bar seating that supported live music on the weekends really cut into revenue, according to Flannery. The owner remains concerned about supporting his staff through this time.

"It's not just about me; it's about the livelihood of my managers and the people that work for us," he said. "I have to make the right decisions, not for me, it's not ego-driven, but the right thing to make sure that I am able to offer them the ability to maintain their livelihood, and it's really tough."

Flannery believes that businesses should be allowed to make their own decisions based on the guidance provided by experts.

"I believe in people; I believe people do the right things; I believe people should have free choice," he said. "I believe on the state and federal level, they should put this in the hands of the people."

Although Flannery recognizes COVID-19 as a real problem, he's discouraged by the lack of opportunity for business owners to make their own decisions on how to handle it.

"If people are concerned about that, just don't go out. That's their choice, and that's the choice we should have as Americans. That's our freedom — it always has been," he said. "So that's what's so discouraging about this is that the restrictions are going to destroy the independent restaurants in this country, especially in the state."

Flannery mentioned that he would strongly consider ignoring the governor's orders if he were not an elected official. Since becoming a county commissioner, Flannery said he's taken more of a backseat role at his business, relying on a team of managers to keep things running smoothly.

"There's a fine line between representing — and I don't feel I represent our governor — but I do feel like I represent leadership in the county, and I have to try and walk a fine line," he said. "I think the people that support me — many would not have any issue with me defying the governor's orders."

Flannery and the other commissioners recently partnered with the Franklin County Area Development Corporation (FCADC), to create the Small Business Recovery Grant program to provide funding to eligible Franklin County small businesses negatively impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

Such initiatives are vital for economic recovery in this area.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to help 50 to 60 businesses here in Franklin County," Flannery said. "However, if we weren't shutting down businesses, we wouldn't be taking tax dollars to try and pay businesses to stay open."

Ultimately, business owners who are resourceful and adaptable will be the ones who survive the pandemic, Flannery predicts.

"My advice would be to be strong, be smart, think of ways to restructure your business temporarily, think of things to do to get through this because it will end at some point, whether it's forced to end or whether it ends naturally," he said.

Michael Kalathas, owner of Relax Lounge and The Orchards, has operated the dual-space in Chambersburg for more than 26 years. 

"The community has been definitely unbelievably supportive when we do open," he said. "But with the restrictions now: no bar guests, no drinking without food and 25% occupancy — that is literally being closed again."

Such tight restrictions call for another round of bail-outs for small businesses to support those that work in the restaurant industry, according to Kalathas. 

"Obviously, they have to step in once again to bail out businesses because of what they've been doing, as far as closing businesses down," he said. "I think that the government will step in and give another (loan) out. But more importantly, they can't keep doing that, and that's the reality. You can't just keep giving money out to all these businesses and expect them to turn everything around if you keep everything closed."

Kalathas would like to see the government take a closer look at just who will receive another round of stimulus money.

"They shouldn't give it to every business that exists in the area because a lot of them took advantage of getting free money and they never closed their doors," he said. "You had millionaires taking money out of this (payment protection program loan). The government has to be a little smarter on how they're going to give this money out to these businesses, instead of just giving it out to everybody. That way there's more left for the people that actually do need it."

The Orchards and Relax Lounge is a large property, Kalathas said, so the 25% occupancy requirement didn't hit as hard as some smaller establishments.

"I'll be honest. We're blessed," Kalathas said. "But what about the people that don't have it? That's the people that you gotta be upset about and worry about."

One of those people is Catalin Bonciu, 76, owner of James Buchanan Pub and Hotel in Mercersburg for 27 years.

He's kept his business closed during COVID-19 because the tavern only has eight tables to work with, and Bonciu is concerned about the liability of someone getting sick in his establishment.

He, too, is concerned about the regulations.

"I grew up in a communist country," he said. "I feel like I'm back in a Marxist, socialist government."

Bonciu is able to deal with the financial fall-out of being closed and that his staff has been able to survive through unemployment, but it's unclear for just how long they can sustain being closed, he said.

"I think we have been impacted so miserably, and things have changed so much," he said. "It's a big burden for me — for everyone."

In the meantime, the uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring keeps restaurant owners concerned.

"You don't even know what to do any more — that's the worst part about this whole thing is you don't know when it's gonna end," Kalathas said. "It's almost like we're all adults and we don't know what to do."

But a love for their craft and devoted patrons keep them going.

"Food is the universal language, restaurants bring people together and show love to everybody," Kalathas said. "In the end, we all need to work together to make things positive, especially for the future of our children."