COVID-19 restrictions on space and food mean area VFW posts’ revenue has plummeted, with some closing their doors and hundreds of thousands of donation dollars shrinking to practically nothing.
For some, the difference between success and closure is dependent on the capacity to serve food and provide outdoor seating. Some of these clubs, where members meet to socialize, drink and play games of chance, have rarely offered a menu option in the past.
Not long after allowing restaurants and bars to reopen in many counties that had entered the green phase of Pennsylvania’s reopening in early July, Gov. Tom Wolf issued a statewide restriction limiting seating to 25% of normal capacities and requiring that food be purchased with any alcoholic beverage.
The restrictions are meant to limit the spread of the virus through social gatherings and not overwhelm the health care system, according to Wolf. Most recently, Wolf has extended the restrictions for another 90 days.
But adding food is a tough reality for veterans clubs that say they already followed all of the social distancing guidelines originally put in place by the state.
Like most VFWs, the Leroy O. Buck Post 5859 in DuBoistown gives donations back to the community through the revenue brought in by it’s lottery tickets and games of chance.
“Eighty percent of the people who come in here at noon when we open, come in to sign the book, have a drink and talk to a friend. Then they are gone – no food,” said Jay Chaapel, post commander.
In DuBoistown, the VFW opened for only four days after the March 16th shutdown and made a total of roughly $1,000. In a normal week, the club’s revenue would have been between $10,000 and $12,000 in sales, according to post Treasurer and Quartermaster Allen Hopkins.
Forced to close its doors again the DuBoistown club waited to see if restrictions would be lifted. But with no change in sight, the post is looking for new options – hoping to begin offering menu items again after Labor Day, Chaapel said.
If nothing changes, and the post is unable to reopen again, Hopkins estimated it will close permanently within a year after all of it’s savings have been depleted.
Donations also have been depleted, Hopkins said, adding that they are limited to just $250 per month for their food share program in partnership with the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank to provide food to veterans. But even these funds will run out in a couple months.
At the Jersey Shore VFW 5859, Manager Tammy Conklin is struggling to stay afloat. Shrinking from a daily capacity of between 150 to 170 down to a faithful 50 Conklin isn’t sure how long the post will last.
As post manager, Conklin’s passion is for fundraising. When the post was shut down and now with drastically decreased income, the nearly $100,000 in annual donations has come to a standstill.
Between 60 and 70% of the post’s annual revenue goes to community donations and helping other veterans, she said.
“We haven’t been able to do anything for anybody.” Conklin said. “It’s sad. It’s very sad.”
For the DuBoistown and Jersey Shore posts, the increased restrictions and food requirement came after many changes had already been put in place to ensure the safety of the members.
Tables were moved farther apart, masks were required, seating was reduced to 50% and heavy sanitization efforts were implemented.
“We did everything exactly to his specifications, and then to add the rule that you have to eat … that really seemed asinine,” Hopkins said.
But, for now, not all VFWs are struggling. In Muncy, Post 3428 is in the rare position to be able to move it’s entire operation to the outdoor pavilion.
“I have none sitting inside,” said Manager Lorie Brehm. “They are actually asking if they can stay outside.”
The bar and food stations now are under the pavilion and while sales dipped initially, Brehm said, they have bounced back with food sales and offering bar bingo twice a week.
“I did whatever I possibly could to stay open,” she said. “I only have five employees and we are all pulling together … We really love our club and we want to keep it open.”
But as summer winds down, Brehm is unsure about the future of the post. Outdoor seating won’t be as feasible during the winter months and indoor seating means fewer capacity. The extension of the 25% and food rule came as a surprise, she said, and may mean that their current success will diminish.
At DuBoistown, a post that already was having a hard time bringing in younger members, Hopkins urged the public, “don’t forget your veterans out there.”
Chaapel added a call to young veterans, “don’t forget us. We’re here for you as much as you are here for us.”