At two Rival Bros. coffee shops, the plastic partitions have returned and indoor seating has been closed off. At Kalaya restaurant in South Philadelphia, tables have been removed to allow more distancing. At the new Hook & Master restaurant in Kensington, the dining room is closed for a week. Big-budget restaurants such as LMNO, Middle Child Clubhouse, and Wm. Mulherin’s Sons have temporarily shut down altogether, mainly because of positive coronavirus tests.

In what traditionally is the busiest period of the year for dining, COVID-19 has thrown yet another speed bump into the road to recovery for an industry that has suffered immeasurably since March 2020.

The city has had an average of 746 new cases of COVID-19 per day in the last two weeks, and a test positivity rate of 8.4%. The rate of new cases represents a sharp increase in recent weeks, and April was the last time it was this high.

The current outbreak has compounded the misery for the affected restaurants and hospitality workers. Many cafés, bars, and restaurants are operating short-staffed, so even one or two sickened workers could knock out an establishment — even from takeout-only sales. Closing a restaurant hurts more than just a bottom line. It idles workers counting on holiday paychecks. Some observers fear that a sustained wave of cases may drive even more workers from the business.

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“The health and safety of our employees and guests is the No. 1 priority,” said Jose Garces, whose Hook & Master is selling pizza to go from its takeout window until Dec. 29. One staff member tested positive and the others are awaiting test results, he said. “We called our reservations and let them know that we’re going to reopen the following week, and we rebooked people. We saw a lot of compassion and understanding and gratitude for letting them know.”

Many restaurant employees — especially those in Philadelphia, which will see a vaccine mandate effective Jan. 3 — are vaccinated. In recent months, a growing number of restaurants had gotten ahead of the requirement and called for proof from both customers and staff. At the same time, some restaurateurs allowed staff to skip mask-wearing.

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The outbreaks illustrate the importance of using multiple layers of protection, especially in cramped quarters such as a restaurant kitchen, said Tony S. Reed, chief medical officer of the Temple University Health System.

The vaccines offer great protection against severe disease, but “breakthrough” infections have always been possible — even more so with newer virus variants such as omicron and delta, Reed said. For someone spending hours in a small space that likely has poor ventilation, wearing masks is a good practice, he said.

Hand washing is also a good idea, though the virus spreads more through the air than through surface-to-surface transmission.

”I think people get the vaccine and come up with the idea that ‘Ah-ha, that’s it, I’m done,’” Reed said. “In reality, there’s still a great deal you can do to protect against transmission.”

The situation is fluid, with many restaurateurs deciding to close with only vague notions of when they will reopen. With Christmas and New Year’s approaching, some, like Garces at Hook & Master, have opted to create a vacation-like break. The issue has spread quickly on social media, and those who follow restaurants on Instagram see their feeds sprinkled with updates, some dire.

Customer reactions

Amid the changes and closings, customers are beginning to rethink the indoor-dining experience. A spokesperson for the restaurant reservation app OpenTable reported an 11% drop in seated dining nationally for this December when compared with the pre-pandemic December 2019, but cautioned that this initial figure might seem low. “The situation is changing rapidly and this is far from the resurgence many restaurants were counting on this holiday,” the spokesperson said in a statement to The Inquirer.

A spokesperson for Resy said the reservation app had seen a steady uptick in cancellations in Philadelphia — at a rate 5% to 10% higher when compared with average cancellation rates from October and November 2021. The cancellations include restaurants that shut down and cleared reservations from their books.

“I’m walking down the same path as everyone else,” said Chris Barnes, who owns the Lucky’s Last Chance bar-restaurants in Queen Village and Manayunk. “Any time someone sniffles, we say, ‘Take the day off.’ This is 180 degrees from the restaurant industry of 20 years ago, when we would work though everything. If there is a bright spot, it’s that everybody is looking to make sure everyone is being safe.”

Tips for patrons

  • Wear a mask indoors unless you are actively eating or drinking.

  • Dine outside. It’s cold, but some restaurants are making life bearable.

  • Order takeout. Call the restaurant directly to skip fees.

  • If you’re in a loud place and need to communicate with a bartender or waiter, use the notes app of your phone to tap out a message rather than take off your mask.

  • If you need to cancel your holiday party at a restaurant because of COVID-19 concerns, spend that same money on gift certificates. But be sure to use them right away, perhaps on takeout.

  • Tip lavishly. Many restaurants are short-staffed and overworked.