Pa. bars and restaurants can amplify sound, but only so much

Restaurants that sell alcohol, and other venues with state liquor licenses and live entertainment, got a gift from Pennsylvania this week: loudspeakers.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law a bill to let liquor license-holding establishments in all counties except Philadelphia and Pittsburgh use loudspeakers to amplify music or entertainment.

A caveat is that off-site noise cannot surpass 75 decibels — roughly the noise level produced by a typical vacuum cleaner.

Previously, the state Liquor Code only gave permission for amplifiers to wineries.

Proponents said the law would sustain outdoor dining — which became a major draw during COVID-19 restrictions — and would not prevent municipalities from issuing nuisance violations for noise.

Not everyone was on board. The bill passed the Senate unanimously late last week, but 14 representatives in the House voted “no.”

Republican Rep. Mark Gillen of Robeson Township was one of them, comparing it to a 2017 fireworks sales-expansion law that generated a slew of complaints.

“I could see it creating quality-of-life problems in communities,” Gillen said of the new law.

He noted it calls for amplifier use to end at 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday nights, and at midnight Friday and Saturday nights.

“So they are going to go to midnight? My 9-year-old daughter, last I checked, was in bed three hours at that point,” Gillen said.

Democratic Sen. Lisa Boscola of Northampton County said it would give restaurants and other venues with alcohol sales and live entertainment a boost.

“They are still recovering from the pandemic and they are not back where they should be,” she said.

The law went into effect immediately with Wolf’s signature Monday.

Outdoor dining boost

Lauren Brinjac, senior director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, said it was timely because the outdoor dining season is in full swing.

The law says a liquor license holder outside of Philadelphia or Pittsburgh can use loudspeakers as long as “the sound of music or other entertainment, or the advertisement thereof, does not exceed 75 decibels beyond the licensee’s property line.”

Previously, Brinjac said, a license holder would be in violation of the liquor code “if you could hear any music out beyond their property line.”

Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, called it a fair update to outdated liquor laws.

“It certainly encourages the use of outdoor dining with a low level of sound such as acoustic music. And we’re sure it will benefit patrons, musicians and licensed establishments,” Moran said.

The bill that went to Wolf’s desk was originated by Republican Rep. Jesse Topper of Bedford County, but the language on loudspeakers originally came from Republican Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill of York County.

Information on a Yale University environmental health and safety web page listed a vacuum cleaner as generating about 75 decibels.

The state police Liquor Control Enforcement will be responsible for enforcement of the new law.

David Sanko, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, said the new law clearly did not replace local noise ordinances. One practical effect, he said, might be removing some of the burden of noise-violation enforcement from local police and transferring it to state police.

Another portion of the law says beer produced by an out-of-state manufacturer under a contract with an in-state entity must be distributed through Pennsylvania’s three-tier system — which involves producers, distributors and retailers.

Topper said loopholes were letting big out-of-state brewing companies set up small breweries in Pennsylvania and then take advantage of waivers given to Pennsylvania brewers. Those waivers let them bypass the three-tier system and sell directly to consumers.

“They were setting up an in-state brew pub and then gaming the system,” Topper said. “Moving forward, we are not going to allow that.”

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