Three times. Philadelphia restaurants have prepared to reopen for indoor dining three times in two months.
Initially it was June 26, when Governor Tom Wolf announced we were going to green phase. But Mayor Jim Kenney said, “Not so fast!” and pushed it until July 3.
We were all ready to go. My team hired staff, purchased new partitions, and reworked the dining rooms. We bought food, made new menus that were easier to execute and practiced the flow of the dining room with all of the new protocols.
Then came another pump fake from the Mayor: Let’s wait until Aug. 1. Today, it announced a ban on indoor dining until Sept. 1 earliest.
This last false start was even more devastating than the original shutdown on March 16. If you told me back then that we would still not have any idea when we were going to open restaurants in Philadelphia by August, I would have said that was insanity.
Approaching the fall, instead of training staff and modifying the dining room for a safe new normal, we are still waiting, confused as ever, for any sign from our mayor that he will hold to a reopening date. Small businesses, already working on revenue fumes and borrowed resources to prepare to safely open, fear the Mayor will once again play the Lucy from Peanuts role, pulling the ball at the last second.
And for what? No one seems to know. Even medical professionals I’ve spoken with who have been on the front lines through this entire pandemic are confused.
Erin Sabolick, an emergency medicine doctor and acting co-director of Einstein’s ED-ICU, informed me that at the height of the pandemic they had over 180 patients with approximately 50 of those in the ICU’s on a ventilator but recently dropped to 14 admitted COVID patients with 3 on a ventilator. Multiple doctors I talked to at Jefferson shared that in April and May, they were at 100% capacity but are below 10% today. They indicated to me that we can open the economy and restaurants with a safety-focused, common sense approach. The city’s data shows, despite some fluctuation in new infections and a recent uptick, hospitalizations have been declining.
There is risk in everything we do. The mayor is basing reopening on taking zero risk at all, but that approach does not actually result in zero harm. We don’t shut down highways because there is a high risk of traffic accidents and deaths. We use common sense, create laws, limit speed, follow traffic lights, all to prevent incidents. We can open restaurants with the same safety-focused approach balancing fear and logic.
Restaurants have gotten some blame for surges. This claim does not square with reality. For example, officials in Spain, Australia, and Japan have attributed new surges to young people going to nightclubs and large gatherings, not dining out. There is a material difference between un-masked young people crowding beaches and clubs, and locals choosing to dine inside a neighborhood establishment run by a responsible restaurateur who has installed plexiglass barriers, invested in air purifiers, set tables 6 feet apart, and has mandated masks, temperature checks, and constant hand washing by staff.
The maddening aspect for so many of my fellow restauranteurs is the reason-defying inconsistency across industries and society. You can sit on an airplane six inches from someone with recirculated air blowing in your face for five hours. Yet there is no discussion of shutting down airlines, only bailing them out. Meanwhile, the future of federal legislation to save independent restaurants—the RESTAURANTS Act—is unclear, if finally gaining steam.
Philadelphia recently opened up gyms, and the School District is still considering reopening in the fall, giving families the choice to go online-only or attend some class in person.
Dining, inside or out, should similarly be a choice. Many people don’t want to eat out. The Inquirer’s own Craig LaBan just dedicated an entire article to explaining why he’s not ready. But why not give those who do the choice, with appropriate precautions?
Instead of working with responsible business owners to reopen safely, the Mayor seems to be promoting an Us (government) vs. Them (restaurant workers) mentality. He doesn’t realize that we are all in this together, and all ready to be responsible together. But we need a coherent plan—actual leadership—that listens to public health experts as well as economic experts to safely balance our city’s broader wellbeing.
As Dr. Sabolick told me: “We all know COVID may kill, but increasing jobs lost, food insecurity, and other financial and emotional stressors also has a cost in lives.”
Without a balanced approach we may wipe out a generation of small businesses and the people who depend on them. That includes not just direct employees, but the supply chain neighborhood restaurants work with, including farmers, fisherman, electricians, plumbers, artisans, and more. When our industry fails, so too does theirs. We all rely on each other for survival. When are we going to bring everyone to the table and come up with solutions?
I keep hearing from friends, customers, and family, “hang in there” or “you’ll get through this.” The fact is, this will likely NOT pass for independent restaurants. We are on the brink of collapse that there is no coming back from, and that’s not hyperbole. Already thousands of restaurants have closed for good—from Michelin Star chefs to mom & pop community cornerstones—leaving north of 8 million workers unemployed. Without opening of modified indoor dining in the coming weeks, independent restaurants as we know them could cease to exist.
This virus is not going away any time soon. We cannot simply hide in our homes until it’s gone. At some point we have to figure out how to live with COVID in the most responsible way. Simple things like mask wearing, washing hands, and social distancing clearly work well, as many of us have been working in kitchens in a safe and healthy way. It is in our industry’s interest to do this right, taking every conceivable precaution to ensure as safe an experience as possible for our diners and our workers. It’s time our local leadership understood that.
We have to mitigate risk, be responsible, and return to a new normal of economic life without overburdening our public health system. But we have to decide to do it, not simply keep pulling the ball or moving the goal posts for lack of resolve.
Our industry, our city, and our communities are at stake.
Marc Vetri is the owner of Vetri Cucina and Fiorella in Philadelphia.