Indoor dining can resume Sept. 8 in Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney announced Thursday, saying he hoped it would be a “turning point” in the city’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
The move was long awaited by restaurant owners who were frustrated that the city’s restrictions — allowing only outdoor dining — remained in place long after late June, when indoor dining was permitted in the rest of Pennsylvania. But other Philadelphia restaurateurs have said they will not open for indoor dining because they believe health risks to their staff and customers remain too high.
“I would urge restaurant owners and employees and patrons, let’s not push the envelope,” Kenney said, as officials warned that they could backtrack if coronavirus numbers spike. “Let’s follow the rules, as we have been for quite some time now.”
Back-to-school considerations were also on display throughout the region Thursday, as some colleges contended with partying students, New Jersey gave the green light to high school sports, and Philadelphia announced it would open weekday centers for elementary school students whose families cannot get child care.
City movie theaters and performing arts venues will be permitted to open Sept. 8, and bowling alleys and arcades were allowed to resume operating as of Thursday, Philadelphia officials also announced. Food cannot be served at those venues.
The go-ahead for indoor dining had been repeatedly pushed back because the virus was still spreading too robustly in the city. In spots across the country, including in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, indoor gatherings in bars and restaurants over the summer were linked to COVID-19 outbreaks, leading some jurisdictions to keep or reimpose restrictions.
Now, the city is banking on a continued decline in cases. While it has not reached all the goals that officials set for reopening — such as fewer than 80 new confirmed cases per day or a test positivity rate below 4% — Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said the trends are moving in that direction. The positivity rate was 4% in the last week.
The city “will be quick to close restaurants” that do not follow safety guidelines, Farley said, adding any restaurant that experiences an outbreak will close for cleaning. The reopening was scheduled for after Labor Day to avoid holiday crowds, he said.
Whether to operate indoors is up to restaurant owners, Farley said. “We have just tried to say, ‘If you want to open, these are the things you need to do to have it be as safe as possible.’”
Philadelphia reported 105 new confirmed cases on Thursday, with only 3% of people testing positive for the batch of results the city received in the last day.
Pennsylvania reported 791 cases and 15 deaths on Thursday, and New Jersey reported 302 new cases and 8 deaths.
High school sports will proceed in New Jersey, the state’s interscholastic athletic association decided Thursday, giving the final OK a few days after Gov. Phil Murphy expressed support.
Some sports will begin practice as early as Sept. 14, and the football season will open Oct. 2, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association said. Indoor fall sports — gymnastics and girls volleyball — will be moved to a “special season” and those teams will not begin practice until February.
Murphy also announced Thursday that a dozen New Jersey counties, including several in South Jersey, will soon receive millions in funding to help pay for testing, personal protective equipment, and other costs associated with the pandemic.
The $37 million, part of the CARES federal relief package passed by Congress earlier this year, will go to areas that were previously not eligible due to population size, Murphy said, speaking in Morris County. Burlington, Gloucester, Cape May, and Atlantic Counties are among those receiving funding.
The reopening of colleges and universities continued to pose challenges nationwide. After Pennsylvania State University students partied without masks during move-in week, the school’s president warned that reckless behavior could lead the university to pivot to online-only learning.
La Salle University took that very step Thursday, announcing that it would nix its plan to offer some in-person classes in favor of a fully virtual semester.
In a letter posted on the university’s website, president Colleen Hanycz said the school’s decision was based on current coronavirus trends in Philadelphia and the growth of new cases among young adults, along with reports of partying at colleges across the country.
“We would be naive to think that we might be able to avoid this fate,” Hanycz wrote, saying some off-campus La Salle students had already flouted the university’s coronavirus rules.
The city has spoken with Philadelphia colleges, which are responsible for controlling student gatherings, Farley said. But he said the city might intervene if “we see a big problem with that” as classes begin.
For younger learners, the city is getting ready to open free “access centers” that will provide child care to parents of some elementary school students, officials announced Thursday.
Children will be able to do their virtual schoolwork at the centers. Thirty-one sites will open Sept. 8, but they will accommodate only about 800 of the 200,000 students enrolled in Philadelphia’s public and charter schools.
The centers will provide weekday supervision from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for students in kindergarten through sixth grade whose parents work outside the home and cannot afford child care, officials said. The centers will each take about 22 students at a time under coronavirus health and safety guidelines.
Located at rec centers, libraries, and city Housing Authority buildings in neighborhoods home to some of “Philadelphia’s most vulnerable children,” the sites will also provide meals and other activities, the city said. It hopes to have 50 sites running by Sept. 21.
Applications open next week, and the city will release information about how to register on its website. Priority will be given to students “with the highest need who can’t safely stay at home during the school day,” the city said in a statement. Officials will consider adding more sites if needed.
The centers will be run mainly by rec center and library employees, who will receive training. The city won’t provide transportation.
School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said the city’s efforts would allow the district to focus on learning.
“I’m elated that they have created a structure for many of our families,” Hite said.