Public-health experts and some patrons, however, opposed the relaxation of the proof-of-vaccination rules, which began Jan. 3 as the omicron variant was spiking COVID-19 cases over the holidays. Health officials had viewed the measures as an incentive for restaurant workers and patrons to be vaccinated.
Under the mandate, already-stressed restaurant staffers were charged with checking vaccination cards, facing pushback from some customers. Some restaurateurs said their business quickly suffered during what is typically one of the slowest months of the year.
Under a new system, expected to be announced as soon as Wednesday, the city Health Department would measure COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, test-positivity rates, and the rate of case increase. According to preliminary benchmarks described by sources, the vaccine mandate would end. Masking would still be required.
If this is true, “this is great news,” said Saba Tedla, who owns Booker’s and Aksum, both in West Philadelphia. “This mandate has crippled our industry for the past six weeks and enforcing it has been a big burden for us.” The biggest impact — aside from a 35% drop in year-over-year revenue — was the departure of longtime kitchen staff who had declined to show proof of vaccination, some of whom had worked for Tedla for years.
“It was crazy to begin with,” said chef Lee Styer, who owns The Dutch in South Philadelphia and emphasized that he is a proponent of vaccinations. The vaccine cards are “a piece of paper my 6-year-old son could write on, and to make an understaffed restaurant have to check them is an undue burden.”
George Reilly of the Twisted Tail in Society Hill called the reported move “a great step forward. This whole time, we’ve been operating with the safety of our staff and guests as our primary focus. We aren’t celebrating yet, but are encouraged that this crisis is fading and by this step back to normal ways.”
Ayad Sinawi, a New York transplant who plans to open a BYOB called Mabu this week in Washington Square West, said he was in favor of lifting the mandates for his customers and staffs. He said he would consider hiring only fully vaccinated workers, despite staffing shortages.
“It’ll be nice to get families with kids back into the restaurants,” said Teddy Sourias, whose Center City holdings include Tradesman’s and Bru. He said that the vaccine mandate applied to people ages 5 and older, making it a “deterrent — especially [among] families in the suburbs since they could just eat locally.”
Ben Fileccia, senior director of operations with the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, said the trade group would work with Philadelphia health officials on safe operations. “We have witnessed successful operations without restrictions in neighboring counties, and feel confident that we can follow this path safely,” he said.
The news brought out commenters on social media. Many responding to The Inquirer’s post on Instagram scoffed at the timing of the modification. “I smell midterms and polls dropping,” wrote Instagram user @lorrissaaa. “They realized the city people were just going out to eat outside of the city and their small economy was collapsing.”
By the same token, commenter @mike_arrison suggested waiting until “the weather warms up and outdoor seating is more widely available. I just got comfortable eating indoors again BECAUSE of this mandate”, and @mitchellflyers expressed being “not happy at all. Why are we caving to the anti vaxxers?”
The prospect of a lifting of the mandate was unsettling to Claire Gawinowicz, a resident of Montgomery County who dines frequently in the city. “My husband and I are senior citizens and I just got the all clear from my oncologist that I’m no longer immuno-compromised,” she said. “But I need to be very careful. We finally went to a Mount Airy restaurant last week indoors and now maybe we can’t go anymore. I’m very upset about the government giving in to political pressure instead of listening to health experts.”