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Philly increases outdoor gathering limit but will keep low indoor dining capacity

Restaurants in the rest of the state can increase indoor occupancy on Sept. 21, but Philadelphia officials will wait until at least October. “We’re in survival mode,” said one restaurant owner.

The dining room at Añejo Philly in Northern Liberties, in a preopening configuration. The restaurant opened in August with outdoor dining along Second Street.
The dining room at Añejo Philly in Northern Liberties, in a preopening configuration. The restaurant opened in August with outdoor dining along Second Street.Read moreMichael Klein

Philadelphia loosened restrictions on outdoor gatherings, but the city will not be ready to increase its indoor restaurant seating limit when the rest of the state takes that step this month, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley announced Thursday.

Two days after indoor dining reopened in Philadelphia, Farley said Sept. 21 — the date restrictions loosen statewide — was too soon to allow city restaurants to operate at 50% of capacity indoors. The city is not tracking how many restaurants have resumed indoor dining since Tuesday.

City officials will look into easing capacity requirements for restaurants in October if the number of new coronavirus cases continues to decrease and if the state’s capacity increase doesn’t lead to outbreaks elsewhere, Farley said. Gov. Tom Wolf announced Tuesday that restaurants statewide can increase occupancy on Sept. 21 if they complete an online safety pledge.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania raises the occupancy limit for restaurants statewide starting Sept. 21

On Monday, the city’s limit on outdoor gatherings will increase from 50 people to 150.

“All gatherings create some risk of spread, but if people want to gather, I want to encourage them to gather outside rather than inside,” he said.

The balancing act between normal life and pandemic shutdown took on a decidedly fall flavor Thursday. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy visited masked, distanced children in newly opened classrooms; Farley cautioned against tailgating before the Eagles start their season this weekend, saying that “getting together with people in a crowd over snacks” is high-risk; and conversations about Halloween began.

Murphy said Halloween was “still on in New Jersey” for now, telling NJ Advance Media on Wednesday that the state will come up with protocols for the evening, though he did not have details.

“Obviously, it’s not going to be a normal Halloween,” Murphy said. “We’re going to have to do things very carefully. I’m sure we’re going to have protocols that we’ll come to. And God willing, the virus stays under control.”

Pennsylvania hasn’t made any announcements about Halloween, and Philadelphia health officials expect to release guidance about how to celebrate safely as the date gets closer.

“It would probably be impossible to ban or cancel it. But it’s important to note that whatever happens on Halloween, it will probably be much different than what we’re used to seeing,” a spokesperson for the Health Department said.

On Thursday, Pennsylvania reported 587 new cases of the virus and 15 deaths. New Jersey reported 507 new cases and five newly confirmed deaths.

Pennsylvania is still experiencing an increase in the number of cases among younger age groups. In Southeastern Pennsylvania, nearly 35% of new cases this month have occurred among people 19 to 24, compared with 5% of cases in April and about 17% in July.

Philadelphia announced 77 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus Thursday, which Farley called “better news.”

Farley said the outbreak at Temple University appears to be subsiding. Contact tracing helped contain the spread, he said.

After restaurants in the rest of Pennsylvania increase indoor occupancy to 50% of capacity, Farley said, Philadelphia officials will watch to see how it goes.

“As the city that’s been hit hardest by the epidemic in the past, we’ve said we will be more restrictive than the state when we think it’s necessary to protect Philadelphia residents, and we think that’s the case now,” Farley said.

Some restaurant owners were not surprised that the city planned to hold off on following the state’s guidelines and said occupancy was just one of several issues hurting their businesses. Others were frustrated by Farley’s announcement, saying they believed having more customers indoors would be safe, particularly given measures they’ve undertaken.

“We’re in survival mode,” said Ken Sze, owner of Tuna Bar, saying sales are down 75%. He noted that increasing indoor occupancy would help restaurants when the weather was bad — like it was Thursday afternoon, as spotted lanternflies swarmed near his restaurant and a storm approached.

Jill Weber, who owns Jet Wine Bar, Cafe Ynez and Rex 1516, was not surprised by Farley’s announcement; she expects Philadelphia to generally stay a step behind the state in reopening.

She and Erin Wallace, owner of Devil’s Den, each said they were more troubled by the city’s 10 p.m. outdoor dining curfew than the limit on indoor occupancy. (In addition, under Wolf’s new guidelines, alcohol sales statewide will be banned after 10 p.m. starting Sept. 21.)

“I’m losing money every day," said Wallace, who estimates she is making about 20% of the sales she used to. "The new way is not ‘How do I make money?’ It’s about, ‘How do I lose the least amount of money and keep from bleeding out until we find a vaccine and I can open at a higher rate?’”

As business owners hurt, Mayor Jim Kenney released a report Thursday laying out recovery plans and vowed to focus on racial equity.

The pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color — and Black people in particular are disproportionately dying of the virus — while exacerbating existing racial inequities in health care and other sectors.

The report includes several initiatives that were underway before the pandemic or created to respond to it, such as rental-assistance and small-business grant programs. The city also has plans to focus on workforce development for residents of color as well as create a fund for entrepreneurs of color.

Said Kenney, "This will be a priority for us moving forward.”

Staff writer Rob Tornoe contributed to this article.