I felt a wave of relief — or at least a momentary reprieve — when Philadelphia announced earlier this month it was postponing the return of indoor dining until the beginning of August at the very soonest.
The city’s decision to punt this part of its planned reopening while other Pennsylvania counties moved forward with limited indoor dining made sense in early July, with coronavirus infections beginning to spike nationally. It continues to make sense as Pennsylvania’s daily average of new cases has nearly doubled since mid-June. More than 27,000 Philadelphia residents have contracted COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic and over 1,600 have died. Pittsburgh cases are surging. The Sun Belt states are blazing coronavirus epicenters after early reopenings. And California just shut down its indoor dining and bars Monday — for a second time.
This virus is very much still among us. So, I have no desire to pick up a fork inside a closed dining room anytime soon.
Of course, this is disastrous for the restaurant industry, which has already suffered disproportionate job losses and cratering revenues since the initial shutdown in March. Most Philadelphia restaurateurs, desperate for any revenue to survive, have followed all the official safety guidelines from government leaders who are overwhelmed and contradictory, only to receive yet another economic gut punch after spending to retrofit dining rooms with clear acrylic panels, and to staff up and stock up for a reopening that was halted on just four days’ notice.
“It sucks ... calling [to cancel] 45 reservations for Saturday,” Marc Vetri told me shortly after the delay was announced, reaffirming also that, yes, some customers actually are eager to eat inside again. The owner of Vetri Cucina and Fiorella, who’s opened two restaurants with indoor dining since the pandemic began — in Nevada and Japan — believes it’s unfair Philadelphia is the only county to not allow indoor dining after Pennsylvania shifted into its green reopening phase, saying the economic impacts should be considered: “People should have a choice.”
The problem is that an individual’s choices now have impacts beyond one’s personal health. So sorry, chef. I love your cacio e pepe, but I’ll take it to go, or even at one of Fiorella’s socially distanced seats on the Christian Street sidewalk.
I’ve been cautiously warming to our burgeoning outdoor dining scene, where the risks are lower. And yet, is outdoor dining even safe enough? Not only for diners, but also restaurant workers, who must interact with all manner of customers in various stages of mask denial? It’s an important question many restaurant critics across the country have been grappling with, often answering “no.” That includes Ryan Sutton of Eater.com, who suffered an excruciating bout of COVID-19 himself before deciding after his recovery that he had the moral obligation to model good restaurant citizen behavior and stick to takeout.
“For me, the low risk of sending a single uninsured waiter to an ICU bed, someone who isn’t really there by choice, in exchange for the pitcher of frozen margaritas you happen to be craving in the late afternoon, is a morally indefensible transaction.”
He makes compelling arguments, especially in advocating safe work spaces for restaurant employees, without whom we wouldn’t have the luxury to skip a meal at home. I think of Kaamil Jones, the laid-off Parc host I profiled with other front-of-the-house employees at the outset of the pandemic, who loves his job, who needs his job, and who is simultaneously preparing to return but fearful of getting sick.
“It’s just such a weird position to be in,” says Jones, 20, a broadcast journalism major at Temple University. “Because as much as I want to go back, and I’m ready to go back, I also don’t want to contract this disease.”
His concerns are legitimate considering a Parc hostess recently tested positive for coronavirus. The timing, with the employee notifying management a day after the restaurant reopened its sidewalk tables, doesn’t necessarily show cause-and-effect with outdoor dining. But it reinforces the gamble of being around others at a workplace.
Of course, there are levels of risk in interacting with every part of the food chain. There’s risk for the chefs in tight kitchen quarters, and for the couriers who bring that dinner to your door. There’s been a huge toll on workers in Central Pennsylvania’s poultry processing plants. There’s risk for the cashiers and employees who stock the shelves (and online deliveries) for groceries we need to cook at home.
If gauging the risk level is at least part of the moral equation in deciding how we interact with the rest of the world, what is the real danger associated with outdoor dining?
“Outdoor dining is definitely far safer for the patrons as long as they maintain adequate spacing between tables, and as long as people at a table are in the same unit,” says Charles Haas, a professor of environmental engineering at Drexel University who specializes in microbiological risk assessment. “In terms of the servers, that’s an interesting one but the mandatory mask requirement definitely helps. There’s more of a risk to servers when the patrons have their mask off ... but it’s still reasonably safe as long as close contact is no more than 15 minutes.”
Diners are the great wild card here. I’ve witnessed some thoughtless behavior to shake my confidence. That includes two diners outside at Steve & Cookie’s in Margate who insisted their server, Jessica Scannapieco, take their picture with their phone. Scannapieco, too courteous to refuse, rushed away afterward to wash her hands as if they were radioactive.
“I told them I’m not really supposed to do it, but they didn’t really care, and I said I’d do it because I want to make sure they have an enjoyable time here,” said Scannapieco, 26, who’s grateful Steve & Cookie’s is outfitted with safety measures for staff like an outdoor sink. “But I did feel little bad, and a little annoyed, because there are a lot of people who are not considerate of the employees who are putting themselves out there every day.”
Working outdoor tables set up beneath tents on a blacktop parking lot with a mask on in 90-degree heat is no picnic for servers like Kim Mulherrin, who returned to work part time at the Dining Car Diner in Northeast Philly in June. But she has little sympathy for diners who resist the rules.
“I feel disrespected because my feelings matter, too,” she says. “I hate the masks, like everyone else, because they’re awful in the heat. But I wear it out of respect. And you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to get through this — because I don’t want to do this again.”
It’s nonetheless unrealistic to expect customers hungering for a taste of quarantine escape to consistently respect boundaries, just as it’s naive to expect restaurateurs, with so little guidance or oversight to suddenly become altruistic public health experts, and not try to squeeze in a few more seats than they should. Some narrow sidewalks have also become so jammed with tables the city has become less accessible to people with disabilities. The overcrowded situations should be noted — and avoided.
These issues are enough to make me and my social-distancing family stay home for the majority of our meals. And yet, I’ve also seen outdoor dining at its best, where chefs can share the joy of cooking again outside the confines of a takeout box, where genuine hospitality is still palpable in well-executed safety protocols that are good for everyone. The quest to reclaim extra dining spaces from converted parking spots (that relieves pressure on those clogged sidewalks) is a smart innovation to continue.
So, I find myself choosing to showcase the places that are doing outdoor dining right. Provided the city’s COVID-19 numbers remain manageable, this can work if restaurateurs firmly set the proper tone and diners respectfully follow the rules. We have a limited opportunity to refine and embrace this while the warm weather is permitting. Because soon enough, the cold winds are going to force us to reckon with the quandary of dining indoors.
We’re still learning more about the complexity of that increased indoor risk. Drexel’s Haas was among 239 scientists who recently urged the World Health Organization to acknowledge that airborne transmission of the coronavirus “cannot be ruled out.”
If the virus can float through a room on aerosols like cigarette smoke, as opposed to the close-range transmission of larger droplets already acknowledged, good ventilation must also be prioritized along with social distancing. All those clear acrylic dividers restaurateurs just invested in?
“They may make matters worse,” if air is flowing in the wrong direction, says Haas, who says stand-alone air purifiers and smart use of windows can help.
I want to continue to support these struggling local businesses so they can survive to provide jobs now and on the other end of this crisis. Their economic impact extends to livelihoods far beyond the restaurants themselves. And takeout alone might not do it: “We can’t afford to be shut down for another five months,” says Jeff Michaud of Osteria and Via Locusta, which is doing a brisk outdoor business. “But we don’t force anyone to come back to work.”
Restaurant employees like Kaamil Jones may be forced into that difficult choice, though, if the $600 weekly federal unemployment benefit created by the Cares Act is not extended. It’s set to expire at the end of July: “I cannot afford to just not work,” he says.
“Surviving on $200 is going to be tough,” she says. “If I have to pick up a temporary job at ShopRite, I’ll go scrub floors if I have to.”
The many undocumented workers who form the backbone of countless Philly restaurants, meanwhile, don’t have the option of that federal safety net to wait out the pandemic. And kitchen work remains preferable to other options, like cleaning, factory work involving long commutes, and construction jobs with unreliable pay, that have become last resorts while restaurants struggle back, says Dionicio Jimenez, the executive chef of El Rey and cohost of the popular Camino al Sabor program on Philatinos, a local Spanish-language radio station.
“We talk about this on my show, how our people are taken advantage of,” says Jimenez. “But everyone is clear they’d rather work in restaurants because they’d have some security. Reopening restaurants is good, because it’s the main income for a lot of families here.”
The pandemic has exposed a long menu of preexisting flaws in restaurant culture that must be addressed. But patronizing restaurants in various ways to keep them viable is worth it, provided they’re relatively safe, which outdoor dining appears to be.
And restaurateurs still have choices. While Philadelphia postponed indoor dining in late June, surrounding suburbs allowed the green phase privilege of indoor dining at partial capacity. On the Friday morning of the planned reboot at Teresa’s Next Door in Wayne, the restaurant’s leadership gathered employees, “and I could tell from the tense body language that people were nervous [about working inside],” says manager Matt Graves.
After debating the risks of ceding potential indoor business versus lingering anxieties over COVID-19, they swiftly decided on the safer choice. Teresa’s would remain open just for takeout, retail wine and beer sales, and outdoor dining. Suddenly, Graves says, “I felt a big weight lift off my shoulders that I didn’t know was there.”
That’s the feeling of a choice with moral implications. And I could relate. But the indoor dining dilemma is far from over. This has only been a reprieve.