Restaurateurs have spent thousands of dollars retrofitting dining rooms and building outdoor seating areas to balance the rules governing safety against the need for commerce.
And now they have been told that this is not enough.
On Monday city officials announced that they would roll back the modest concessions granted over the last several months, effective Friday, eliminating indoor dining altogether and limiting outdoor tables to parties of four people who live in the same household. “I don’t know how we’re going to determine who is in the same household," said Peter Hwang, who owns SouthGate, a bar-restaurant in Center City. “That’s beyond our scope. Maybe the threat will make enough people not do it.”
Restaurateurs said “Safer at Home,” the city’s name for the move, could spell doom to a business that has been battered by eight months of restrictions prompted by COVID-19. Few believe that the city’s rollback will end after six weeks, as cases of coronavirus are likely to spike over the holidays. January, always the slowest month for restaurant revenue locally, promises to be extra bleak as takeout and delivery will be the only real options.
The move inspired some restaurateurs to announce temporary shutdowns, possibly through the winter, as Monk’s Cafe did recently. Others are closing till the measures are lifted, such as Joe Cicala at Cicala at the Divine Lorraine, who was thinking about buying a tent to cover his patio. Fergus Carey said Fergie’s Pub and The Fairview will close temporarily after business Sunday, and Grace will close sometime this week, joining The Goat, which has already closed.
Although restaurants might not be to blame for any surge in cases going forward, this would be a Pyrrhic victory for an industry that believes that it is being punished unfairly for society’s shortcomings. In short, they say, people gathering at house parties and flouting the mask guidelines are the true spreaders, not restaurants, which as a group adhere to stringent health guidelines.
Casey Parker of the Jose Pistolas group is frustrated by what he called the lack of leadership, foresight, and bolder solutions: “The first time around, I didn’t blame the governor or the mayor. Everybody was trying to figure it out. But this time? C’mon! We saw this coming and there needs to be a little more planning on this end. Like ‘Hey, we’re going to allow you to hold on to your money for liquor and sales tax!’ Or any number of other things that could have been done to help us this time around. … All of our [official] responses have been a little too reactive as opposed to proactive.”
To Ellen Yin, who owns Fork, High Street on Market, and a.kitchen, “I think it’s more of a mental state. We were expecting this and already trying to come up with new strategies [like more takeout and bolstering outdoor dining]. But it is going to be even more of a challenge. We were expecting a difficult period over the next three months. Now what this announcement says to our consumers is that it’s essentially not safe to go to a restaurant. And the fact that you can only have four people from the same household at an outside table makes it even more difficult. Not everybody has four people in their family. And if you live by yourself, now you can only eat by yourself.”
Indoor dining at 25% capacity resumed in Philadelphia on Sept. 8, increasing to 50% on Oct. 2. Restaurants in the Pennsylvania suburban counties have been capped at 50% since Sept. 21. New Jersey’s restaurants may open for indoor dining at 25%.
» READ MORE: Some of the restaurants that have closed in 2020
Since word of the city’s cutback plans began to trickle out Nov. 13, restaurateurs have been considering their options.
In a Zoom call Monday, 50 restaurateurs involved with a coalition known as Save Philly Restaurants met to discuss the availability of more capacity for rapid testing of restaurant workers, to push for tax relief, and to see if some mechanism to prevent commercial evictions could be established.
“We shouldn’t be in this place,” said organizer Nicole Marquis of HipCityVeg, Bar Bombon, and Charlie Was a Sinner. “It’s utter chaos, and we’re now headed into the worst wave of business closures. We used all of our resources through summer. One of our priorities is to press and demand free rapid testing, just like pro sports and the White House get.”
Among the potential effects are layoffs. The restaurant workforce endured a round of job cuts in early spring at the beginning of the shutdown. Those layoffs were accompanied by forgivable government loans (for the businesses) and $600-a-week federal supplements (for many workers). Then came mid-June, when restaurants in the suburbs began to rehire as dining rooms were permitted to reopen.
This round of layoffs may be more dire, as no assistance from Congress is in sight. With outdoor dining tables limited to only those in specific households and capped at four people, and with no indoor dining, “We’re going to have to make some tough decisions,” said Nicholas Elmi, who owns Laurel and In the Valley in South Philadelphia and is a partner at Royal Boucherie in Old City.
Elmi said that even with the strict restaurant rules, the virus would continue to spread unchecked, largely because of private gatherings. “It’s going to be worse, and then what do we do? You can’t blame us for everything.”
The Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association plans to host a rally at 2 p.m. Wednesday outside the state Capitol in Harrisburg to press for financial relief and assistance. The PRLA says 50% to 60% of restaurants statewide are expected to go out of business by the end of 2021 without any further federal or state assistance.