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Philly’s bars were put through the wringer. Are they back to normal?

On the surface, Philly's bars are back. But hours have gotten less predictable, rules have changed, and staff are in short supply. Here's a look at how the pandemic has affected the drinks scene.

The crowd is reflected in a mirror at Fountain Porter at 1601 S 10th St.
The crowd is reflected in a mirror at Fountain Porter at 1601 S 10th St.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia’s bars have had a tumultuous pandemic, marked by shutdowns and silver linings like takeout cocktails, elaborate outdoor dining structures, and a flurry of new in-bar bottle shops. They also adapted to (sometimes seemingly arbitrary) rules that came and went: The PLCB boarded up its stores, Gov. Wolf prohibited serving drinks without food, and last call moved up to 11 p.m. statewide for almost a year.

Now that the plastic barriers have come down and the liquor can flow freely again, is Philly’s bar scene back to normal?

It can feel that way at Dirty Franks, where proof of vaccination is required to drink inside, meaning staffers and patrons alike can go maskless.

“Visually, it looks normal,” says owner Jody Sweitzer. “People are having a good time. And because of vaccination, we’re now allowing people to go two deep — we’re allowing more people in.”

Bartender Patty Rogalski agrees. “It feels like we’re back to being a bar again.” She suggests Franks’ tight-knit bunch of regulars actually grew closer because of the pandemic.

But when Rogalski and Sweitzer venture beyond the comfort of their home turf, apprehension creeps in. Even familiar haunts run by colleagues they know and love present uncertainty.

“I trust my group,” Rogalski says. “But I don’t know if I trust the masses of people.”

That pause is perhaps the biggest change to bar-going. Grabbing a drink requires more calculating. Before the pandemic maybe you thought about your budget. Now, there are other things to worry about: Do I feel comfortable in this setting? What are their policies? Are there too many people? How’s the ventilation?

Philadelphia bars are collectively straddling two worlds. One foot is planted in the throes of 2020-21, dogged by memories of surges, shutdowns, and the suddenly high-stakes exercise of waiting on customers. The other foot is hovering midair, waiting to step down in a post-pandemic world — a premise that seems increasingly blurry and impossible to define.

The scene felt like it took that step forward in mid-June, when last call moved back to its normal time and when the city’s mask mandate for indoor spaces was lifted for workers and customers alike. On June 10, the last day for those rules, Interstate Draft House in Fishtown closed at 11 p.m., then reopened at midnight for two more hours. Regulars poured back in to celebrate.

“You can feel it among the people,” co-owner Mike McCloskey told The Inquirer. “Once the masks were lifted indoors, people were finally saying, ‘Now, it feels normal again.’”

Other remnants of restrictions began disappearing. Tables and chairs weren’t spaced out anymore. Hand sanitizer pumps vanished from tabletops, while salt and pepper shakers made their return. At Oscar’s Tavern in Center City, shower-curtain dividers between booths came down.

But that nudge toward normalcy proved somewhat premature. Just two months later, in August, the city announced the indoor mask mandate was back unless businesses opted to screen for proof of vaccination. Once again, bars and restaurants were on the hook to enforce masking — or they could choose an even more politically fraught route and ask staff and customers to show their vaccine cards.

It was a relatively easy decision for some barkeeps, including Sweitzer, who had made up her mind to card people by the day the city reinstated the mandate. Others hedged for a few days, then announced they would ask for proof. Many simply defaulted to masking.

The list of bars and restaurants requiring proof of vaccination for inside service has slowly grown longer. While workers and owners generally agree that’s a good thing, the city is still asking these establishments — and ultimately their workers — to enforce policy and to act as a cudgel. A subset of customers express resentment, outrage, and a range of other emotions for that reason.

» READ MORE: Full list of places in the Philly region where you need to show proof of vaccination (so far)

“People seem to be weirdly surprised that they have to have a mask on now, as if the pandemic isn’t still ongoing, as if we didn’t just go through this,” says R&D bartender Solomon Thomas.

Bars and restaurants enforced rules before the pandemic. They carded people and cut them off. But the coronavirus subtly shifted the dynamic. Workers were charged with upholding public-health standards in a more overt way than just keeping the place clean. Perhaps as a result, more workers have started to push back on the long-entrenched “customer is always right” mentality. If managers and owners side with them, it could lead to broad change in the industry, though it’s hard to pinpoint what ramifications that would have.

COVID-19 has given rise to all sorts of other issues in the industry, too. Supply chains for food and booze continue to be strained, creating scarcity, affecting menu options, and raising prices. The acute crunch for workers has been a force for changes good and not-so-great: Wages have gone up and other standards may be improving, but hours have become unpredictable. Staffing shortages mean the workers who are on the clock are spread thin. Some bars keep their kitchen closed at certain times or days; others close well before 2 a.m.

One reason for the reduced ranks in the service industry is that many seasoned servers, cooks, bartenders, and managers decided to move on to other professions, according to Thomas, who is also the Philadelphia chapter president of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild.

“In a positive way, [the pandemic] gave a number of us who didn’t spend that much time introspectively considering what we could do with our lives outside of this more options. Once that happened, a lot of people who were quote-unquote dedicated to this industry realized, this industry wasn’t really serving them,” he says.

The absence of these veterans makes staffing more challenging, but Thomas also identifies an upside. There’s an influx of young and newly interested workers laying the groundwork for a next generation. “We’re training new staff to be excellent bartenders. That takes some time,” he says. “We just can’t run at 100% of our speed and volume and capacity like we want to, even if we weren’t in a pandemic.”

What’s the sum of these changes for customers? Service may be a little slower, prices higher, the night shorter. But they also might not register any difference. Bar-goers can still crowd together around a table or on a dance floor and forget their troubles for a time.

“Check out the Gayborhood on a weekend night — it’s packed,” says Resa Mueller, a longtime Philly bartender, also currently at R&D. “People are back and ready to dance.”

It will take years to define the effects the pandemic has had on the industry — its repercussions are still rippling out. In the meantime, for those who are ready to belly up, it’s enough that the bar is back.