As Jordan Acosta saw it — he explained while weaving his way through the Bishop’s Collar in Fairmount, arms full of tequila-filled glasses on his way back to a table with his friends — he got his shot months ago.
“Now,” the 27-year-old said. “It’s time to buy a round of shots for everyone else.”
And as the last remnants of the city’s coronavirus restrictions for bars lifted over the weekend, similar scenes played out across Philadelphia in the dankest of dives, the trendiest of wine bars, and all manner of lounges, taverns, and taprooms in between.
Gone were masks indoors. Back were 2 a.m. last calls. And with them, the packed crowds of revelers eager to celebrate what felt like a definitive milestone in a city diving headfirst into its post-coronavirus future.
“It feels like New Year’s Eve,” said Mike McCloskey, co-owner of Interstate Drafthouse in Fishtown. “The sound of a crowded bar. A game on in the background. People talking. There’s nothing like it.”
Sure, many watering holes had managed to survive by settling into new routines — opening outdoor spaces, erecting plastic glass barriers indoors, modifying menus, and slinging to-go cocktails to meet ever-shifting guidelines issued by health officials over the last year. Some even succeeded in drawing brisk business despite extended restrictions.
And sure, coronavirus concerns have not evaporated completely.
But with a growing number of Philadelphians fully vaccinated and daily case numbers dropping to their lowest levels since the start of the pandemic, McCloskey said this weekend felt like a new beginning.
And he was eager to get an early start. After closing his bar down at 11 p.m. Thursday, in accordance with the city’s coronavirus-imposed last call, McCloskey reopened an hour later — the minute the restrictions lifted — and welcomed a full house of regulars back until the traditional 2 a.m. closing time Friday. Many came back to pack the bar again Friday night.
“You can feel it among the people,” he said. “Once the masks were lifted indoors, people were finally saying, ‘Now, it feels normal again.’”
Across town Friday evening, a crowd packed the Italian Market basement bar 12 Steps Down until 2 a.m. for the first time in 15 months.
“It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for,” owner Danielle Renzulli said.
Like all bar owners, she said, the last year has been punishing to her bottom line. And there were points when the business’ future was in doubt.
Still, her establishment managed to hang on to hope of seeing this day by opening a 35-seat outdoor “streetery,” expanding its cocktail menu, and delving into frozen drinks — for the customers forced to quaff in scorching summer heat.
Dozens of other drinking establishments weren’t so lucky. And owners of those that have survived still face challenges, even with the lifted restrictions.
Chief among them is the difficulty in staffing up to handle pre-pandemic capacity, many bar owners interviewed Saturday said.
After having to furlough employees during the extended shutdowns, McCloskey found many of his old workers have simply moved on to new careers outside the hospitality industry, he said. He estimated it might not be until September that reopening kinks are fully worked out.
Difficulties filling out shift schedules prompted South Street’s Jet Wine Bar to push back its reopening plans. It converted its indoor space to a bottle shop last year and has decided to continue providing table service only at its 100-seat outdoor garden for the moment, said Qamara Edwards, business and events director for the Sojourn Philly restaurant group.
“The labor shortages have affected us more than anything,” she said. “We’re at the capacity we can handle right now.”
Meanwhile, the future of to-go cocktails — what many bar owners described Saturday as their saving grace over the last year — remains in question.
A bill to make to-go cocktails permanent passed in committee this week, but it has not been scheduled for a vote by the full legislature.
And yet, even at Craftsman Row Saloon near Eighth and Chestnut Streets in Center City — where the bartenders were still wearing masks and employees were unaware that the city’s restrictions had lifted — the handful of patrons at the bar Saturday were still eager to raise a glass in celebration.
“Cheers,” said Sean Wiley, 33, of Pennsburg. “To making it this far without dying.”