Philadelphia’s restaurant industry, which has largely collapsed in the last week during the coronavirus crisis, is asking elected officials for relief.

Following statewide lobbying by the Pennsylvania Restaurant & ​Lodging Association, a coalition of 42 local restaurateurs, who collectively own more than 150 restaurants in the city, sent a letter Monday to elected officials to seek swift action on a variety of issues.

They have asked city, state, and federal lawmakers for:

  • Emergency unemployment benefits for laid-off employees (eliminating the four-week delay to receive checks).
  • Rent abatement and a moratorium on commercial and residential evictions and collection actions for at least 60 days (mandated 60-day grace period to avoid defaults).
  • Intervention to require insurers to provide business-interruption coverage related to closures that are mandated by the government related to the current health crisis.
  • Emergency loans with no or low interest to businesses that are impacted by the government-mandated closures. (The city just announced the Philadelphia COVID-19 Small Business Fund, designed to provide grants and zero-interest loans.)
  • A state sales tax “holiday” for restaurant pickup and delivery orders, so that restaurants that stay open can compete on an even playing field with grocery delivery services (which are not generally subject to sales tax).

The letter, posted on the site savephillyrestaurants.com, includes a petition.

The signees are a who’s who of the Philadelphia restaurant scene, including Michael Schulson, Stephen Starr, Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney, Mike Solomonov and Steve Cook, Marc Vetri and Jeff Benjamin, Jill Weber, and Ellen Yin.

They fear that in just a few months, there might not be many restaurants left in Philadelphia.

“I feel like I’m in a war,” said Nicole Marquis, founder of the vegan fast-casual HipCityVeg eateries, who organized the effort after a meeting of restaurateurs last week at Zahav that she described as “like walking into a funeral.”

Logo of the SavePhillyRestaurants relief effort.
COURTESY SAVEPHILLYRESTAURANTS
Logo of the SavePhillyRestaurants relief effort.

“These are very dark days for us,” the letter reads. “Right now, our future, with just a trickle of our former income, looks very bleak. We have had to close many of our restaurants entirely and lay off all or nearly all of our beloved teams. None of us has a clear path to survival beyond a couple of weeks from now. As you know, restaurants run on very tight margins, and without daily revenue, we cannot pay our rent, our employees, our vendors, or ourselves. Unlike other industries, restaurants do not have deep reserves for slower days, let alone months.”

Marquis, who has shuttered her bar Charlie was a sinner and is doing limited pickup business out of her Bar Bombón, estimated that her revenue had dropped 80% to 90% — not enough to sustain her remaining HipCityVeg employees beyond a couple of months. Her hourly workers are “the most vulnerable,” she said.

“I’m personally utterly heartbroken, especially having to say goodbye to 275 employees,” Marquis said.

Like all restaurateurs, the coronavirus has flipped the script. “Only a couple of weeks ago, we were having great conversations with investors. We were poised for a national rollout, and it’s hard to imagine that we’re now fighting for our survival.”

Many restaurateurs are particularly upset in insurance companies’ denial of business-interruption claims, given that the shutdowns are government-mandated. “If a volcano erupted in the middle of Center City, they would have to pay," Marquis said.

“This is a sonic wave that’s rippling through our economy, and we have to help the people on the front lines,” she said.