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Restaurant and bar owners wrestle with coronavirus dilemma

To idle Pennsylvania’s nearly half-million restaurant workers for an indefinite period, or to keep the lights on and pay their staff, but potentially expose them and their customers to COVID-19?

Even though restaurants may open for takeout and delivery, Danny DiGiampietro has chosen to lose Angelo's Pizzeria in South Philadelphia.
Even though restaurants may open for takeout and delivery, Danny DiGiampietro has chosen to lose Angelo's Pizzeria in South Philadelphia.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

As the region’s restaurant and bar business plummets with the spread of the coronavirus, owners had wrestled with a dilemma:

To close or not to close?

To idle restaurant workers for an indefinite period, or to keep the lights on and pay staff but potentially expose them and customers to the virus?

Or to find a middle ground: to scale back and rely on delivery and pickup orders?

Gov. Tom Wolf made the decision for many of them in Allegheny County and the Philadelphia suburbs late Sunday, directing bars and restaurants to close their dining rooms for two weeks. They may remain open for carry-out and delivery only.

Restaurants in Philadelphia, not subject to the governor’s order because the city’s home-rule charter empowers the mayor, have been fending for themselves.

Sunday brought a growing list of temporary closings, while other restaurants pivoted to reduced service.

Third-party delivery companies such as Grubhub, DoorDash, and Caviar extended their offers of “no-touch” service minimizing contact between drivers and customers. (Still, Salvatore Carollo, who owns Spuntino, a pizzeria in Northern Liberties, suspended his affiliation with the delivery services over what he called drivers’ cavalier attitudes toward hygiene. Spuntino customers must pick up their own food, a system that seems to be working as he keeps his dining room open.) [Update: Spuntino restarted its delivery services.]

On Sunday, the collection of restaurants owned by Stephen Simons and David Frank — Khyber Pass Pub, Cantina Los Caballitos, Dos Segundos, Royal Tavern, Royal Boucherie, Triangle Tavern, and Royal Sushi & Izakaya — closed temporarily after business, idling 300 employees.

Marc Vetri announced that he was suspending inside seating at Fiorella, his hot, new pasta bar in South Philadelphia, and would open only for carry-out and delivery Wednesdays to Sundays. He also removed 40 percent of the seating at Vetri Cucina in Center City to provide six-foot spacing between tables. [Update: Vetri closed these restaurants for the time being.]

Fiorella will sell pasta and sauces out of the restaurant, as will Cry Baby Pasta in Queen Village, which announced that it would close at 8 p.m. Sunday until at least April 1. [Update: Vetri closed Fiorella.]

Dim Sum Garden, one of the only restaurants in Chinatown that seemed to be weathering a spate of xenophobia surrounding the virus, announced a temporary shutdown because of health concerns.

South Street Souvlaki elected to close for at least two weeks, rather than change to carry-out and delivery, owner Tom Vasiliades said.

On Saturday, just before dinnertime, Wm. Mulherin’s Sons and Hiroki, which share a building in Fishtown, announced a temporary shutdown. The night before, both restaurants were busy. “At this time, we are acting out of an abundance of caution and believe we should all be heeding the CDC’s guidance regarding social distancing,” read a note on Mulherin’s Instagram.

Even the wildly popular Angelo’s Pizzeria in South Philadelphia, a takeout shop, decided to close temporarily. "The crowds get tight here and because of the social distancing thing I feel it’s in your and my staff’s best interest to take a few days off and get a better understanding of what’s next,” owner Danny DiGiampietro wrote on Instagram.

DiNic’s, the cheesesteak destination at Reading Terminal Market, decided to close after business Monday. The market remained open.

On Sunday, dine-in restaurants and bars in New York City were ordered to close, effective 9 a.m. Tuesday.

It’s almost business as usual at some Philadelphia establishments. There was a line Saturday night along Girard Avenue outside Garage, a popular beer bar in Fishtown. Jason Evenchik, who owns a second Garage location in South Philadelphia, as well as the bars Time, Bar, and Tiki, and the restaurants Vintage and Heritage, said his staff was “constantly cleaning and sanitizing everywhere." Occupancy has been reduced to minimize crowding, he said. Still, “depending on how long this lasts, this could potentially be catastrophic for our industry.” He had no plans to curtail operation, a common refrain among bar owners who cannot change their business model to only carry-out and delivery.

Still, not all bars will stay open. After closing Saturday, the six workers at Hop Sing Laundromat, a speakeasy-style bar in Chinatown, voted unanimously to close. “We believe that it’s our responsibility to take it upon ourselves to act swiftly instead of just waiting around for the government to tell us it’s time,” said the owner, known as Lê, who said Hop Sing is prepared to be closed until summer.

Though some may ask whether the closing will be a hardship to Hop Sing’s workers, “we were assured by each and every member of our staff that they have been saving for rainy days,” he said.

Many restaurant workers do not have savings. Not that the owners are necessarily flush with cash, either. March follows two of the traditionally slowest months, and the local hospitality industry had been wrestling with keen competition and a shallow labor pool.

Ben Fileccia, a director with the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the group will ask the state to ease restrictions on unemployment, among other forms of relief.

Contrast this to New York City, where high-profile operators such as Danny Meyer and Jean-Georges Vongerichten have closed their restaurants before the shutdown. The move did not extend to Vongerichten’s Philadelphia restaurant and lounge, Jean-Georges and JG SkyHigh, which were busy Saturday night.