Some Philadelphia eateries welcomed customers into their dining rooms — though others stuck with only takeout — as city restaurants on Tuesday were permitted to open for inside dining for the first time in nearly six months.
As the city resumed indoor dining, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that restaurants statewide can increase indoor occupancy from 25% capacity to 50% on Sept. 21 if they complete the state’s online coronavirus safety certification. But the state added a new restriction: starting in two weeks, restaurants and bars must stop alcohol sales at 10 p.m.
Tuesday was also reopening day for the city’s movie theaters and performing arts venues, and for criminal trial proceedings and jury selection.
And it marked back-to-school week for most New Jersey public schools, the majority of which are using at least some virtual education, as well as many other districts across the country.
As summer unofficially ended, the season left behind a virus still not under control in the United States: The number of known cases nationwide nearly quadrupled from Memorial Day to Labor Day and deaths came close to doubling, according to a Washington Post analysis.
The country had 6.3 million confirmed cases and more than 189,000 deaths as of Monday, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.
But in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where the virus' spread has been mitigated over the last several weeks, officials reported 496 and 284 newly confirmed cases Tuesday, respectively.
The number of new daily cases remains about level in Philadelphia — just over 100 per day, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said. Last week’s outbreak among Temple University students appeared to be subsiding, with a lower proportion of students testing positive over the past few days, though Farley could not “say for sure that this is over.”
Indoor dining in the city is capped at a quarter of capacity. Some restaurants opened their doors right away for lunch — though takeout remained more popular at many Tuesday afternoon — while others said they still needed a few days or weeks to prepare.
Dim Sum House by Jane G’s had a reservation for four set for the evening, said Vea Huon, manager of the popular University City soup dumpling spot, which also has a Rittenhouse location.
The restaurant takes visitors' temperatures upon arrival and has multiple sanitizing stations to disinfect menus, tables, and chairs after each use.
The city has limited tables to no more than four diners and prohibited bar service. Servers are required to wear both masks and face shields.
Few other restaurants surrounding Dim Sum House had opened for indoor service midday Tuesday; many had takeout-only signs posted in their windows. At Booker’s Restaurant & Bar in West Philadelphia, people sat outside surrounded by plastic shields under the newly-built awnings at noontime, but no lunch customers had gone inside.
At vegan Caribbean eatery Hibiscus Cafe, owner Earl Young, noting his restaurant is small, said he won’t feel comfortable serving people indoors any time soon.
After Wolf’s announcement, Philadelphia officials were quick to caution that the city may not follow along with the state’s plans for expanding indoor dining. Farley said he would review the new state guidelines.
“As the city that was hit hardest by this epidemic, we have been more restrictive” than elsewhere in the state, Farley said, “and we will continue to be more restrictive if we feel it is necessary.”
Wolf had tightened restrictions on bars and restaurants in July after outbreaks in multiple states, including Pennsylvania, were traced to people gathering in eateries. Tuesday’s decision reflected improved case counts; Levine said the state had reached a point where it was safe to raise the occupancy limit.
The decision to cut off alcohol sales at 10 p.m. starting Sept. 21 was aimed at preventing people from getting drunk and then ignoring social distancing guidelines — especially in college towns, said Health Secretary Rachel Levine.
“We’re now at that point where we feel we can raise that occupancy limit and do that in a safe way,” she said. “We still want to have some mitigation, and that’s why we’re adding the 10 p.m. last call.”
Under the guidelines, Pennsylvania restaurant owners will be able to increase their occupancy to 50% after “self-certifying” that they commit to following safety measures.
The online self-certification, which Wolf’s office said was modeled after a process used in Connecticut, requires restaurateurs to provide their maximum occupancy number and agree to follow current COVID-19 guidelines. Customers will be able to search for restaurants in a state database to see their certification status.
The certification doesn’t include an inspection or mean the state has affirmed the restaurant is operating safely. Restaurants can’t increase capacity without certification, but they otherwise are not required to self-certify and won’t face additional penalties if they don’t.
If a certified business is found to be violating health and safety requirements, its certification will be revoked, the state said. Customers can file complaints about noncompliant restaurants on the health department’s website. The state said enforcement will begin Oct. 5 but did not provide details about how rules will be enforced.
The Wolf administration said the certification would help boost consumer confidence and ensure employee and customer safety. The state will send certified restaurants window decals and signs.
Many restaurant industry observers believe that 50% occupancy is considered the minimum level for viability. Levine said allowing more diners inside would also help eateries get more business as the weather turns colder.
Still, the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association said the move wasn’t enough to lift the industry out of its “precarious position,” criticizing the governor for not requiring other businesses such as grocery and retail stores to self-certify, for making restaurants wait two weeks for the order to go into effect, and for lacking “meaningful enforcement” for business owners who don’t follow the rules.
“The return to 50% occupancy is welcome news to the industry. It’s something we’ve asked for repeatedly since July 15, but it is a hollow win when other mitigation standards are added,” said PRLA president John Longstreet in a statement.
Wolf said restaurant and bar owners and patrons have “done a nice job so far” following the targeted mitigation rules.
“I have all along been concerned about the economic impact this has had on the restaurant and bar business,” he said. “I chose not to ignore reality in terms of recognizing that bars and restaurants are places where that virus can ultimately do some bad things. ... But I also recognize that we also have a financial obligation to that industry.”
Also on Tuesday, Levine urged Pennsylvanians to get flu shots this fall, saying “it is more important than ever” to do so this year while the coronavirus, which can cause flu-like symptoms, also circulates.
Anyone traveling to New Jersey from Delaware, Maryland, Ohio, or West Virginia must quarantine for 14 days, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Tuesday, adding the states to New Jersey’s quarantine advisory list.
With Friday having brought the return of indoor dining and reopening of theaters in New Jersey, Murphy said the state received “very few” reports of unsafe behavior over the holiday weekend.
“This gives us all some hope for the days ahead as we continue to battle this virus,” he said.