Tables at Parc on Rittenhouse Square were full on June 12, the first day of outdoor dining in Philadelphia.
As with restaurants across the city, the French bistro-style tables were distanced farther apart than usual, and staff wore face masks. The next day, a Parc hostess told management she tested positive for the coronavirus and stopped working, according to three employees.
Managers notified an unspecified number of employees who had close contact with the hostess that day, said Melissa MacLeod, general counsel for Starr Restaurant Organization. The restaurant checks employees’ temperatures before each shift.
The Parc case is just one example of a situation that restaurants and other businesses are likely to face as officials and business owners seek to reopen Philadelphia’s economy safely. Philadelphia requires businesses to contact the Public Health Department when employees test positive, and there is no law requiring notifying all employees or customers.
Parc’s response to its positive case appeared to be in compliance with city regulations. But ensuring that all businesses follow guidelines — including spacing outdoor tables at least six feet apart, screening employees for symptoms, and requiring masks — is key to easing more restrictions.
And as city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Friday that new confirmed coronavirus cases were again increasing in Philadelphia and issued a mandatory mask-wearing order, the stakes for following reopening guidelines grew higher.
Outdoor dining can continue despite increases in cases, officials said, and hair salons, barbershops, and other businesses already permitted to reopen can continue operating.
“If we have evidence of spread in outdoor dining then I would definitely consider [ending it], or if we have evidence that there is really broad-based ignoring of the safety rules than I would consider that,” Farley said.
Farley said after the first weekend of outdoor dining this month that he was concerned about tables too close together and groups of people gathering around them without masks.
Despite those concerns, the city hasn’t issued formal warnings or fines to restaurants not in compliance. And contact tracing of all cases is not yet in place to identify and inform people who may have been exposed to a person with COVID-19. That work could eventually include contacting restaurant patrons after a restaurant employee tests positive, if the business is willing to share its reservation list.
Teams of Streets Department officials, typically tasked with enforcing the sanitation code, have visited restaurants to remind them of public health guidance, city spokesperson Mike Dunn said. That enforcement will spread to other businesses as they open, including hair salons and barbershops, which the city permitted to resume operations Friday.
“To date the City has not been issuing formal written warnings,” Dunn said. “Rather, inspectors have advised owners and directed them to the reopening information on the City website. However, moving forward, official violations and cease operations orders can and will be issued if warranted.”
Farley said inspectors who regularly visit food establishments and other businesses will also monitor for adherence to COVID-19 safety regulations.
Under new regulations put into effect since the start of the pandemic, the city can issue fines for up to $2,000 and issue orders to cease operations if businesses do not comply with coronavirus-related guidance.
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But even if fines are levied, officials acknowledge they won’t be able to get to every business.
“We’re really pleading with business owners to take this seriously,” Farley said.
Residents can also contact the city with complaints about businesses. Many have taken to social media to complain to the city about restaurants blocking sidewalks, tables too close together, and employees not wearing masks.
Philadelphia has put regulations in place for reopening every kind of business, from restaurants to hair salons to construction sites. Guidelines include screening employees for symptoms of COVID-19, requiring masks for employees and customers, and using plastic-glass barriers at cash registers.
When an employee tests positive, a business must inform the city Public Health Department and follow guidelines for cleaning and quarantining employees who were in close contact with that individual.
Coronavirus infections have become a fact of life in restaurants, despite rigorous cleaning and other safety measures. Most owners treat known infections seriously but are loath to discuss them publicly.
Some restaurant owners have closed down after an employee tested positive, out of an abundance of caution. Angelo’s Pizza in Bella Vista temporarily closed after an employee contracted COVID-19, Loco Pez closed its Fishtown and West Philadelphia locations for separate 14-day periods last month, and Murph’s Bar in Fishtown announced this week that it would close for 14 days after an employee’s family member tested positive.
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In the construction industry, Dunn said the city has issued eight violations, each with a $2,000 fine, for failure to comply with coronavirus safety regulations at work sites since May 1, when the city began lifting restrictions on construction. An additional 30 construction sites were under investigation, he said.
Fines will soon be issues for other businesses, including restaurants, that are not in compliance with safety rules, Dunn said.
And as the city warned Friday that new cases were increasing — even as surrounding counties moved into the state’s “green” phase of reopening and allowed indoor dining and other activities to resume — Farley said Philadelphia would attempt to closely watch for compliance.
“It’s going to not serve anybody well,” he said, “if people don’t follow the safety guidelines.”