Restaurants in Philadelphia can bring more diners indoors this weekend if they install enhanced ventilation systems, officials said Tuesday, and the city plans to open three new mass vaccination clinics the week of Feb. 22.
Restaurant operators can expand indoor occupancy to 50% of their capacity starting Friday if they can document that their ventilation, whether through an HVAC system or window fans, sufficiently circulates the air at least 15 times per hour, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said.
Farley said the new standard, aimed at helping the hard-hit industry bring back customers, should be considered “Version 1.0” and may evolve over time.
“We are breaking new ground,” he said. “But we do think this is a way to try to have restaurants get back on their feet economically” while keeping customers safe.
Many restaurant owners estimate that an indoor occupancy of at least 50% is what they need to break even amid the coronavirus pandemic. But the new ventilation requirements mean spending more money, and some restaurateurs pushed back against the guidelines.
In a letter to the city, four restaurant operators who had been advising officials complained that their weekly meetings “were too brief and controlled to allow us meaningful input” and said the plan unveiled Tuesday “is inequitable, unscientific, unclear, and unenforceable.”
The committee members — Jon Myerow, Avram Hornik, Qamara Edwards, and J Bazzel — along with the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, have suggested the city should follow the state guidelines, which allow restaurants to operate at 50% capacity if they self-certify they are following safety measures.
‘Patchwork of rules’
Still, some of the city’s restaurateurs intend to boost their HVAC systems.
Barry Gutin, who owns Cuba Libre, hadn’t been sure they would need additional ventilation in the Old City restaurant. But after Tuesday’s announcement, he scheduled an installation for an air purifier system. He and his business partner, Larry Cohen, spent $20,000 on equipment, including the air purifier. They’d already spent six figures to offer outdoor dining.
”It’s been a patchwork of rules and regulations that change at a moment’s notice,” he said.
The city’s new requirements say at least 20% of the air circulating must be outdoor air, the system must have high-grade filters, and it must turn over the air every 4 minutes or more frequently on average.
Restaurants can get approved to increase their capacity by submitting a form showing that their ventilation system was tested and verified by a professional to meet the standards.
The city won’t independently verify the claims on the form, but will measure the ventilation in routine or complaint-triggered restaurant inspections.
Restaurants that don’t enhance their systems can continue offering indoor dining at 25% capacity. Indoor catering and social gatherings remain banned.
Mass clinic sites planned
The city also plans to begin operating the three mass vaccination clinics on Feb. 22, the same day Philadelphia’s public school teachers are scheduled to begin getting their shots. The sites will be in or near Harrowgate, University City, and Sharswood, Farley said. They will eventually be among six city clinics operating on a rotating schedule.
The new sites, which will not be open every day, will be at the Community Academy of Philadelphia, the University of the Sciences, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Older Adult Center. The city is already operating a clinic at the Convention Center, where people who received their first doses from Philly Fighting COVID — the vaccine distribution group the city cut ties with — are getting their second doses.
Establishing clinics in neighborhoods is one part of the city’s efforts to address racial inequities in the distribution of the vaccine. Farley said the city has not selected the locations for the others it plans to open.
City staff have been meeting with local advocacy groups to bring more Latino residents to vaccine sites, Farley said. The city does not share vaccine recipients’ data with the federal government, so undocumented immigrants can get inoculated without worrying about their data going to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Farley said.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey all reported modest increases in the number of vaccine doses received this week. Philadelphia is getting more than 25,000 doses, Farley said, about 5,000 more than usual. Plus, Rite Aid pharmacies are receiving more than 4,000 doses directly.
“But remember,” he said, “we have 1.2 million adults in the city of Philadelphia, so it will certainly be many months before everybody has an opportunity to get vaccinated.”
Philadelphia launched a new website, phila.gov/businessvaccine, where employers of essential workers can preregister to be notified when vaccine is available for their employees.
Pennsylvania officials said the state received 12,200 more doses this week than last, but they could not say whether three of the four most populated counties the state Department of Health serves — Allegheny, Montgomery, and Delaware — would receive more doses than the 1,000 apiece they got last week.
Department of Health senior adviser Lindsey Mauldin also could not say when Pennsylvanians in the next eligibility group, which includes many frontline essential workers, will be allowed to get shots.
Still, the Health Department is aiming to open vaccinations to the general public by the summer, Mauldin said, despite flawed state-provided registration software and a vaccine supply so limited it has stalled some counties’ efforts.
Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and New Jersey all continue to show signs of the spread plateauing or slowing.
“The metrics we are seeing continue to point in the right direction,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said this week. “The numbers of new cases, both in terms of raw numbers and the rate of transmission, while still high, are far off the peaks we saw just several weeks ago.”
New Jersey has administered more than one million vaccines.
“We are seeing increases in our supplies over the next three weeks,” the governor said, “and that is a big step in the right direction.”
Staff writers Erin McCarthy and Allison Steele contributed to this article.