The teetotaling Quakers who founded West Chester more than 250 years ago might have choked on their soft cider had they envisioned the exotic scene on Gay Street one recent Friday evening.
The cordoned-off thoroughfare resembled a Roman plaza, with hundreds of outdoor diners filling socially distanced tables. Crowds of young people, most wearing surgical masks as if bound for some medical Mardi Gras, flitted in and out of bars. Aproned waiters, moving as self-assuredly as their Parisian counterparts, navigated the maze while hoisting trays of wine and hors d’oeuvres.
On Friday and Saturday nights when skies are clear and temperatures mild, West Chester’s commercial vitality appears to contradict the prevailing wisdom about the COVID-19 pandemic’s social and economic hardships.
While the disease’s costs and restrictions have left many Philadelphia-area malls, shopping centers, and small-town commercial districts on life support, restaurant-laden West Chester has remained surprisingly stable.
The number of small businesses open in Philadelphia fell by 24% compared with January 2020, according to Opportunity Insights, a Harvard-backed research institute. But in West Chester, the only enterprise in the borough’s downtown heart to shut its doors recently was a Starbucks.
“And that had already been in the works,” said John O’Brien, executive director of the town’s business improvement district. “A lot of businesses are teetering on the brink, but so far West Chester has been very resilient.”
That’s evident wherever you look in this Chester County seat. At Church and Gay Streets, a recently opened office building has already leased all of its three upper floors. Plans for a second borough hotel, at Gay and Walnut, have been given the green light. Elsewhere, according to O’Brien, an oyster bar, a brew pub, a barbershop, a co-op market, and a kitchen-remodeling business are among the enterprises preparing to open.
Yet just beyond the economic sunshine, an intractable threat is pushing toward this town of 17,000 like an approaching storm. And when it arrives, winter could trigger an uptick in COVID cases and threaten the al fresco dining that has sustained restaurants through months of limitations.
A recent Goldman Sachs Group report estimated that most outdoor dining will disappear when the thermometer moves below 45 degrees.
“We’re fortunate that the community has supported us,” said O’Brien, motioning toward a lively lunch crowd in the center of Gay Street. “But this goes away when the cold arrives. Winter is scaring people. They don’t know what it’s going to look like. That’s why some are contemplating shutting down in December, January, and February.”
There are concerns beyond the weather. The town has already been grappling with an unsettling COVID trend: In October, it was second among all municipalities in the eight-county Philadelphia region for a spike in its virus rate.
Moreover, the town clearly benefited from an infusion of federal aid — money that is no longer flowing. According to government figures, 2,000 businesses in the zip codes that include West Chester received about $170 million in aid earlier this year from the antivirus Paycheck Protection Program, enough to save at least 17,000 jobs. That was one out of every three jobs in that area.
And with many office workers still at home and West Chester University almost entirely virtual, weekday foot traffic long ago dried up. Ongoing governmental restraints continue to frustrate merchants. And many businesses, particularly those who didn’t benefit from the first round of COVID relief, say they’ll soon need financial assistance.
“I didn’t qualify for any funding because I wasn’t open prior to all this,” said Josh Taggert, whose Mae’s West Chester debuted in May. “I left a cushy job with Sodexo to open this place and I haven’t gotten a paycheck since.”
Adding to all the winter-related angst for those shops whose business has been bolstered by the big weekend dining crowds is the realization that the make-or-break Christmas season is right around the corner. The situation is especially fraught for restaurateurs; their trade is the dominant employer in town after government.
To create a more welcoming holiday mood, O’Brien said, the borough will decorate and advertise more aggressively than usual.
“The next couple of months will be vital,” said Jamie Weisbrot, owner of Phineas Gage, a High Street men’s clothing store. “You’ve got to make it in the holidays or you’re not going to make it through next year.”
Like Media, Doylestown, and other area county seats, this quaint borough was at the crest of a decades-long revitalization when the coronavirus struck in March, an upswing that helped cushion it from 2020′s devastating blow.
Before COVID, building-permit applications and home values had been rising steadily. Expensive new townhomes and condos were popping up throughout West Chester’s 1.84 square miles. Events like food festivals, a nighttime bicycle race, and an Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade lured people downtown. Trendy restaurants and boutique shops followed.
All that activity and the town’s walkability attracted young adults, many from surrounding Chester County, where the average median household income is a state-high $100,000. At West Chester U., one of the few schools in the state system to experience growth in recent years, the student population has reached 17,600.
“There was so much going on that, if you had a small business, West Chester was where you wanted to be,” said Akeim Rowland, the co-owner of Scoops ’N’ Smiles, a Gay Street ice-cream parlor that opened in March.
Rowland was planning to open in March. But days before the debut, COVID closed everything. When he finally could open, more unexpected difficulties arose.
“It was a logistical nightmare,” said Rowland, who with his brother, Yusef, owns a second shop in Malvern. “We couldn’t open. We weren’t allowed to interview people. Rent and expenses were piling up, but nothing was coming in. We couldn’t get basic things like signage. I wanted to build a takeout window, but Home Depot was out of wood. You couldn’t find plastic silverware because the big restaurants were sucking it up. We had to drive to Delaware to get napkins and spoons.”
Scoops ’N’ Smiles still hasn’t opened its interior to patrons, but its takeout window and several outdoor tables are typically busy, Rowland said.
“We’re doing OK,” he said, adding, while mixing metaphors slightly, “We’re still swimming upstream, but we’re getting across the lake.”
Meanwhile, at his farm-to-table BYOB, Taggert’s experience has been similar.
After years of vacillating, the longtime corporate chef, a West Chester resident, decided to quit his steady job and open a restaurant this spring. He found a Gay Street storefront abandoned by a Mexican taqueria and devised a business plan.
“I ran the numbers and they all looked good,” said Taggert. “I thought I’d taken everything into account. But I never imagined the world would shut down.”
For Mae’s and the 43 other restaurants in the West Chester Business Improvement District, it’s been a slow and steady evolution since March.
The spring’s initial shutdown was followed by a transition to takeout and delivery only. In June, restaurants were permitted to reopen with restricted outdoor dining and 50% capacity. A July COVID flareup reduced that to 25%, but it was back at 50% in September. Even then, service had to end at 11 p.m. and alcohol could only be purchased with food.
Mae’s opened in early May, for takeout only. By June, Taggert had four picnic tables outside and indoor seating for 12.
“It was just me and my wife and we hired a friend who’d been laid off from another job,” he said. “People are hanging in there, but it’s not easy. I’m worried about winter.”
With restaurant crowds restricted by COVID regulations, nearby shops dependent on that traffic also have suffered.
“It’s been a ride,” said Holly Zobel, owner of Kaly, an eclectic women’s clothing shop. “March April, May, all I was doing was online. We reopened in June and I was back to about 50% of my normal sales. Every month we’re going up about 10%.”
In addition to the lost revenue, these businesses also have had to invest in health and safety measures.
Zobel, for example, installed plastic-glass barriers and hand-sanitizing stations. Clothing that customers try on must be steam-cleaned. On weekends, an employee is stationed at the door to ensure that no more than 10 customers are inside at any time.
And even though most diners remain reluctant to eat indoors, West Chester’s restaurants have taken similar precautions.
“People are still wary, but this is probably the best time ever to eat in a clean restaurant,” said Taggert. “We’re cleaning like crazy. We’re probably spending more on sanitizers and stuff than we are on food.”
The key to West Chester’s survival was persuading PennDot in June to close Gay Street, from Darlington to Matlack. Both Gay and Market, the primary commercial strips, are state streets. While narrower Gay was closed for four blocks, Market remained open, its restaurants forced to petition for state permission to convert adjacent parking spaces into dining areas.
“Even in these extraordinary circumstances, some things still seem unwavering, which is a little disappointing,” said O’Brien. “There are so many requirements and so much paperwork."
He credits help from Democratic Rep. Chrissy Houlahan and area state representatives with breaking through the red tape.
"But state regulations on eating and drinking are still in effect. They can’t serve anyone after 11. You can’t get a drink at a bar even if you’re six feet apart. I understand the thinking, but if I’m out to dinner and I want to stop somewhere for a cocktail, it becomes challenging.”
On Oct. 2, West Chester mandated that all people in its commercial area must wear masks or risk a fine, a rule that, according to merchants, the public seems to have accepted.
“It’s not a point we wanted to get to, but if this small act helps keep your neighbor safe and your store open, it’s a small sacrifice,” said O’Brien.
And so West Chester, a commercial island surrounded by an expanding sea of red ink, pushes on, its future as unpredictable as the weather.
“If this is the worst of it and there’s an upswing to follow, we’ll be OK,” said Rowland. “But this is the seventh or eighth month of this. How much longer can people hang on?”