Ryan Weaber and his wife Cee Jay are passive conservationists.

They like to live off the land as much as they can. Ryan hunts and they grow vegetables together in a garden in the backyard of their Palmyra home.

Because they both lead active lifestyles, they enjoy eating at home. They don’t really go out to eat all that often.

But the Weabers didn’t start Virtual Dinner Party with their stomachs. They started it with their heads – and their hearts.

“It’s about supporting local businesses,” said Ryan Weaber. “It’s not just about the owners, it’s also the waitresses and bartenders who are hurting. It’s for the people who rely on this for their incomes.

“This could close some local restaurants,” continued Weaber. “That’s what we’re trying to prevent. That was the driving force behind it. My wife and I aren’t collecting anything. We don’t want to see that happen to families. They’re small businesses. Many don’t have extra money.”

Jonathan and Sarah Shutter enjoying their #VirtualDinnerParty.

The Weabers’ Virtual Dinner Party is just another example of local people stepping up to help other local people in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Weabers created Virtual Dinner Party as a group on Facebook, as a way to help local restaurants financially and to keep people connected in this time of coronavirus. Restaurants can post menus, pictures of their dishes and their current specials and services, while patrons can share their take-out experiences and reviews of the food they’ve purchased, all from the isolated comfort of their own homes. At the time of this article, the group was approaching 1,900 members.

Since putting the concept into action three weeks ago, the Weabers have eaten out every day, either through pick-up or delivery.

“People can go wherever they want, take pictures of their food and post their pictures,” said Ryan Weaber. “My wife and I make menus and what we’re going to eat. We’re inviting people to do the same things and eat together. Everybody can talk and hang out. We post our schedule for the week and try to get food from a lot of different businesses.”

Tammy and Andrew Murphy show off their local takeout.

Humans are social creatures by nature, Weaber said. Being with other people is an important part of the human experience. Virtual Dinner Party allows people to connect in times of isolation.

“Everyone’s stuck at home,” Weaber said. “[This] gives them something to look forward to at the end of the day.”

Virtual Dinner Party is continuing to gain traction and steam.

Currently, there are more than 30 local restaurants and businesses participating, and the group has about 1,500 members. The Weabers started the group with people they know and restaurants they frequent, but it has expanded to people outside their circle and all across Lebanon County.

#VirtualDinnerParty participant Matt Sanders smiles through bites of Chinese takeout.

Virtual Dinner Party has provided local restaurants with a way to inform local patrons that they are still open for business. Some have even donated gift cards to the cause.

“There’s been a ton of local restaurants that have been active,” said Weaber, a 37-year-old graduate of Cedar Crest High School. “I think people are enjoying it very much. There’s a lot of engagement. You have people saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, that looks so good.’ All the businesses who have been involved tell me, ‘Thank you so much.’ Some of the restaurants have reached out to me personally.

“What’s good about it is people sharing how much they want to keep them open,” added Weaber. “Just the thanks from the restaurants. We didn’t do it for that reason, but it’s great to see we’re making a difference.”

Sean, Cal and Rory Smith sit down for a #VirtualDinnerParty.

As part of Governor Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home order, local restaurants were compelled to close the dine-in portions of their businesses on March 17. Two days later, the Weabers put Virtual Dinner Party into action.

“My wife and I started it on a Thursday, when everything shut down,” said Weaber. “What we’ve done is invite friends and everybody else to order out. It’s not just for the owners, but also for the waiters, waitresses and bartenders to have a job to come back to. The restaurants have been super receptive.

“We were watching the news when they said they were going to shut down local businesses,” Weaber added. “I said to my wife, ‘We’ve got to do something.’ We cook at home. We never went out. But we’ve ordered out every night since. We’re practicing what we’re preaching.”

Because we are all increasingly leading active lives, more and more people have been relying on dining out and restaurants as a way of providing meals. Lebanon County is home to many great eateries, preparing a variety of unique and delicious dishes.

Jonathan Shiner, Samantha Howe, and their pizza pie.

“The dynamic of the family has changed,” said Weaber. “Mom and dad both work. They don’t want to come home and cook. Every night we do go out and eat, restaurants are pretty full. People do go out and eat a lot.

“As long as there’s a need, I’m going to keep doing it,” continued Weaber. “It’s kind of become a part-time job, just posting on Facebook, taking phone calls and answering messages.”

Both Weaber and his wife are active nurses. Not only is it their profession, it’s part of their nature and character.

“We work in healthcare,” said Weaber. “We’re still getting a paycheck. Instead of donating to a charity, we’re getting a meal. It’s our way of giving back, and we can at this point. I guess this comes from the fact that I’m a nurse by trade. I want to continue taking care of people. We’re doing well. It (COVID-19) hasn’t changed our day-to-day life.”

Addy and Brandon Kirsch preparing their own pizza pie.

“Since I’ve been a nurse, I’ve seen a couple of different viruses,” added Weaber. “None of that even comes close to this. This is going to change our economy and the face of healthcare forever. It’s going to change our way of life. It’s made us all grateful for our families.”

And the best way to get through it is together.

Read all of LebTown’s COVID-19 coverage here.

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Jeff Falk is a seasoned journalist based in Lebanon, PA. He's a graduate of Cedar Crest High School, Penn State University, and a lifelong resident of Lebanon, born and raised. Currently, he is a feature writer for Engle Publishing in Lancaster, the editor of LebCoSports.com, sports director at WLBR...


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