As schools and offices close and events cancel in droves, most of the Philadelphia area’s bars and restaurants are soldiering on, providing spaces for people to get their minds off coronavirus over food and much-needed drinks.

For some restaurant owners, like Luis Marin, who owns El Sarape and Los Sarapes in Montgomery County, business is still busy. Reached on Wednesday, he said he hadn’t seen much change in his customers’ habits, either.

“I’m more careful, I’m washing my hands more,” Marin said. But he’s also still shaking hands and hugging people he knows. “It’s hard to change who you are,” he said. Marin said his restaurants will remain open despite the announcement Thursday by Gov. Tom Wolf, who recommended that all nonessential retail facilities in Montgomery County close.

In Philadelphia, a number of owners and operators said business was usual.

“We haven’t really seen a change yet,” said Kate Moroney Miller, director of operations for the Vintage Syndicate, which operates popular Center City bars like Time, Bar, Tiki, and Vintage.

Peter Hwang, owner of SouthGate in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood, echoed the “no change as of yet” sentiment. “And we haven’t noticed a significant change in customer behavior,” he said. “But we have certainly added additional cleaning/sanitary measures and procedures to our daily operations.”

Business was likewise steady at Center City’s Good Dog Bar, but owner Heather Gleason had noticed a slight shift in customers’ interactions.

“Guests are not shaking hands and definitely washing them more, from what I can tell,” she said. “People are embracing the fist bump and just giving a wave for now.”

Chloe Grigri, co-owner the Good King Tavern and Le Caveau, said she and her staff hadn’t seen any marked changes in volume either. “And we sincerely hope not to!” she added.

Still, on an informal tour of Center City hot spots around 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, things did seem slower.

Even on an overcast evening, some of the rattan chairs and bistro tables overlooking Rittenhouse Square at Parc were filled with customers enjoying wine and roast chicken. Its picture windows were full with diners, but peering beyond, one could see several empty tables further inside.

Further up 18th Street, Rouge’s post happy-hour crowd had thinned to a handful of diners. Only a couple seats were filled at, while — its cocktail-driven counterpart — had significantly more customers, possibly seeking liquid succor.

At Oscar’s Tavern, the bar was mostly full and the fraying booths held numerous drinkers, but it was a bit slow by one longtime waitress’ judgment. Across the street, Abe Fisher looked quiet.

But perhaps the real proof was found at the Wawa at Broad and Walnut — steps from a restaurant that temporarily shuttered out of coronavirus concerns — where there was no hustle for hoagies or coffee. Asked if it seemed a little slower, a clerk sighed: “Yeahhh …”

The Wawa at Broad and Walnut was unusually quiet on Wednesday evening.
Jenn Ladd / Staff
The Wawa at Broad and Walnut was unusually quiet on Wednesday evening.

As with every other realm coronavirus has impacted, the circumstances for restaurants and bars is constantly shifting. Reached on Thursday, Ben Fileccia, the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association’s director of operations and strategy for the Philadelphia region, had just learned Gov. Wolf was shutting down Montgomery County schools, community centers, gyms, and entertainment venues for two weeks.

“Restaurant land is — if you asked me three days ago, I would say, ‘[it’s] OK.’ Today is a whole different story. It seems to be changing hour by hour, day by day,” Fileccia said.

“Generally, we are anticipating catastrophic loss in revenue that we haven’t really seen before,” he cautioned, adding that 95% of Philadelphia restaurants are independently owned. “Restaurants don’t make a whole lot of money. It doesn’t take a whole lot to upset the balance of things. It’s just going be really difficult and painful time for a lot of restaurants, but also for all the bartenders and the servers, the kitchen folks.”

Fileccia recounted previous national events that shook the city’s hospitality industry, including 9/11 and the 2008 recession, as well as his experience at a Broad Street restaurant he operated during the time of Pope Francis’ visit in 2015. “I had to close like one full weekend,” he remembered. “And it took me almost a year to make up that revenue — and that was just one weekend.”

At McGillin’s Olde Ale House in Center City, staff had adjusted plans for St. Patrick’s Day and the preceding Saturday, two of the 160-year-old bar’s busiest days of the year. According to a statement released on Thursday, the bar had canceled entertainment in order to discourage dancing and will only admit one person per seat in the building this Saturday and on St. Patrick’s Day, adhering to a strict one-in-one-out policy after it reaches capacity.

“We expect a 75% drop in business," the statement read. “But, we believe it is the responsible thing to do. Our legacy and reputation mean more to us than one or two busy days. Our staff and guests mean far more to us than the loss in business. … Like everyone else, we’re watching the news and will continue to adapt and change our policies as necessary.”

Fileccia had advice for those who, faced with coronavirus news, don’t feel comfortable dining out: Buy gift cards for the future, and order takeout or delivery. Restaurant workers are already more diligent than most about handwashing, glove-wearing, and hygiene, and they’ve become hypervigilant, he said.

“And if you do feel comfortable dining in and you are feeling good, go and go out for dinner — or go out for lunch, go out for breakfast. Support these small businesses that are always there for you.”