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Philly small businesses are ready to reopen. But when will the city give the go-ahead?

Small businesses want to reopen their establishments as quickly and safely as possible. But they have no idea when they’ll actually be able to do so.

Charlie Biando (right) keeps his eye on the espresso as he steams a pitcher of milk for a cappuccino, as Elixr owner Evan Inatome (center) and manager Brian Honsinger work the counter at their Philadelphia coffee shop in 2018.
Charlie Biando (right) keeps his eye on the espresso as he steams a pitcher of milk for a cappuccino, as Elixr owner Evan Inatome (center) and manager Brian Honsinger work the counter at their Philadelphia coffee shop in 2018.Read moreDavid Maialetti / File Photograph

» UPDATE: Gov. Wolf outlines plans for reopening in early June

A South Philadelphia restaurateur has removed almost half her dining room tables and more than half the bar stools. The owner of four coffee shops in the city is considering expanding retail hours to make up for a future without free-spending customers camped out at tables. And an executive at a Montgomery County company that provides such automation systems as factory robotics is preparing for a potential surge in business as the coronavirus remains as threatening to human workers as ever.

All of these business leaders share a desire to reopen their establishments as quickly and safely as possible during the pandemic. And they have something else in common, too: They have no idea when they’ll actually be able to do so.

“Philly is going to be the last to open” in Pennsylvania, said Gina Rucci, who owns Popi’s Italian Restaurant by the Packer Park neighborhood of South Philadelphia. “But I’m telling every business owner I know: Start prepping now so you can immediately get back to work once the city reopens.”

Rucci removed eight of the restaurant’s usual 20 dining room tables, and went from 14 bar stools to six. Her returning staff are rolling up silverware in napkins or using prepackaged utensils. A parking lot that Popi’s owns may become an outdoor dining area in warmer weather.

“We’re doing a lot of takeout and delivery five days a week, but we want to reopen dining to customers, so we’re spreading tables apart at a safe distance,” Rucci said. “So why won’t the mayor just tell us when we can open our doors?”

» READ MORE: Philly-area restaurant owners are planning a ‘hard reset’ for reopening during coronavirus

Frustration over Mayor Jim Kenney’s reluctance to provide a timeline for when businesses can reopen is growing among some small-business owners, even though the decision actually rests with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, whose phased reopening plan calls for counties to be recording considerably fewer new coronavirus cases than Philadelphia is still seeing before restrictions can be lifted.

Some of those business owners are planning to participate in a “Reopen Philly” rally on Friday outside City Hall to protest the lack of a schedule for Philadelphia’s reopening plans.

» READ MORE: Reopening businesses during coronavirus is complicated: ‘I’m so afraid of letting anybody in the place’

“You can’t set a timeline,” Kenney said Wednesday during his daily briefing. “The timeline is what the virus dictates and that’s been the case since the beginning. ... Unless the data indicates that it’s safe, then it’s not safe.”

The push to reopen comes as numerous states that initially weren’t as hard hit by the virus begin to lift their restrictions, despite public-opinion polls that show majorities oppose reopening businesses right now, even at the cost of continued economic suffering. A Washington Post-University of Maryland survey released this week found that 78% of Americans would feel uncomfortable eating out at a restaurant right now, and 67% would feel uncomfortable going to a retail clothing store.

Asked whether he could unilaterally reopen the city for business, Kenney said: “First of all, I wouldn’t do that. Second of all, I don’t know the legal answer to that question. But we are in constant contact with... the governor’s office, on a regional basis, so that we’re all walking in the same direction.”

Evan Inatome, the founder of Elixr Coffee, is both optimistic about reopening, and cautious. He said he doesn’t want to rush anything. Inatome founded the company in 2010 with his brother-in-law, Winston Justice, a former Philadelphia Eagles football player.

“We went from bustling to an 80% drop in revenue,” he said. “We have a wholesale business, too. That has dried up almost altogether.”

Elixr’s 33 employees have been cut to just two — including him. A $70,000 loan through the federal government’s troubled coronavirus Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses has helped him get ready to open.

“But the reality is I’m not going to hire as many people back because there’s nothing for them to do," Inatome said. "We can’t make up jobs for people.”

Inatome foresees day-to-day business being significantly different for a long time to come.

“Our plan is to reopen in a way that doesn’t put anyone at risk," he said. “We don’t have a timeline for reopening. I can’t envision the world where customers come into cafes for a long time."

A small first step may be expanding Elixr’s retail hours beyond the current 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., so more customers can come to the store.

Ron and Cliff Miller, the father and son owners of Adelphia Plumbing & Heating, said a PPP loan helped them weather the financial pain and keep their 20 full-time employees paid and able to service the 100 or so high-rise buildings they’re contracted with in Philadelphia.

“We’re in better shape than most, because we have a backlog of work," Cliff Miller said, referring to customers who deferred repairs and maintenance during the shutdown. "If I were a restaurant I’d be scared. If [the state] hadn’t allowed construction for another month, then without the PPP we would have been in bad shape.”

Other businesses that aren’t customer-facing have already hired back workers, such as Mobile Outfitters, a Manayunk manufacturer of equipment for mobile phones.

Previously, the company’s sales were mostly in exports, particularly to Italy, where the global pandemic has hit especially hard.

“I was in Milan at the end of February, and we saw this coming,” company co-founder Eric Griffin said.

So after furloughing employees and successfully applying for a PPP loan, Mobile Outfitters pivoted to making masks and other personal protective equipment.

“We brought everyone back," Griffin said. “But our core business was selling [phone cases and accessories] in shopping malls. So how can we do that?”

The company has sold 100,000 face shields so far, Griffin said, with buyers including such people-intensive businesses as hotels, restaurants, IT service companies, and call centers.

Phil Marchese, chief operating officer of Automation Distribution in Hatfield, said the company is hearing from more customers interested in automating parts of their businesses. ADI is a distributor of high-tech automation and robotics, serving companies in such industries as manufacturing, and e-commerce fulfillment and logistics. Its customers include the aerospace and defense company Northrop Grumman, as well as Image First, a health-care linen and laundry services company with headquarters in King of Prussia.

As companies prepare to get back to full staffing levels and production, Marchese said, “we are hearing common themes in conversations with our clients. The first is that manufacturing and supply-chain capacity needs to come back to the United States."

But the higher cost of manufacturing means companies may turn to automation and robotics, Marchese said.

Ron and Cliff Miller, the Adelphia Plumbing & Heating owners, are willing to be patient.

“It’s not up to the mayor,” Ron Miller said. “It’s up to the virus.”

Staff writer Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.