Philadelphia’s restaurants, bars, and grocers weren’t exactly surprised by the city’s latest coronavirus restriction, requiring businesses to reimpose indoor masking requirements by midnight Wednesday or, if not, to require proof of vaccination. Though the announcement featured some of the same irksome trappings as previous proclamations — short notice, outsourced enforcement, and somewhat vague guidance — it seemed to rankle the community less.
Southgate owner Peter Hwang was braced for new restrictions. “I did let my staff know that some changes will be coming. We haven’t had time to really sit down and go over what those would be,” he said Wednesday afternoon. “But for the most part, we’re just glad to have some definitive leadership.”
Indeed, many had already been discussing the topic with staff and customers ahead of the announcement, prompted by increasingly dire reports of the delta variant’s spread and a slight uptick in the city’s case rates.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a couple weeks now,” said Dirty Franks co-owner Jody Sweitzer, who had solicited feedback from some bar regulars Tuesday night, in anticipation of the city’s morning news conference.
At the Kensington Community Food Co-op, a conversation about masking had been on the agenda for a previously scheduled staff meeting Wednesday. The morning’s announcement preempted any guesswork, said general manager Mike Richards. Instead, KCFC employees and customers will mask up again.
“The city forces our hand a little bit,” Richards said. “But we’re certainly not upset about it.”
Casey Parker, co-owner of Jose Pistola’s and its sister restaurants, was too busy to talk, but didn’t take issue with the announcement. “I’d say people should stop blaming the city, blame the unvaccinated,” he wrote in a reply.
Other owners and managers, however, were tight-lipped about their reaction and plans — perhaps because they were deliberating what to do, or because masks and vaccinations have become lightning-rod issues for a vocal subset of the population. Several sources declined to comment, citing ongoing discussions about what was best for their staff, business, and health.
The city’s new policy presents businesses with a choice followed by a logistical hurdle: whether to default to the blanket indoor-mask mandate, or to establish a process for checking vaccination status.
Sweitzer had already been leaning toward checking for proof of vaccination indoors at Dirty Franks, and she will, starting Thursday. (The Midtown Village dive now has a robust outdoor seating setup, which Sweitzer is working to make permanent; that area will not be affected by the new policy.) All of her employees have been vaccinated, and the consensus among the bar’s devoted regulars was that a proof-of-vaccination policy made them more comfortable.
“I have a feeling that a lot, like 90%, of my clientele are going to be very appreciative of it,” Sweitzer said. She’s already turning her mind to execution — a task made easier at Franks, which often has a doorman posted inside.
“There’s nothing different between us carding people for ID than asking for their vaccination card. I just have to talk to my staff about how we want to keep a record so that somebody who has shown their vaccination card doesn’t have to keep walking around with it.”
At Weavers Way, the community-owned grocery store with locations in Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill, and Ambler, there wasn’t much debate about what to do. Signage had already been updated to reflect that customers and employees needed to be masked.
“It’s simply impractical for us to require proof of vaccination in order to give people more choice when it comes to the masks,” said general manager Jon Roesser. Among all of its stores, Weavers Way has a staff of 250 and processes about 3,000 transactions a day — too great a number to police for proof of vaccination.
“And that proof can be easily forged anyway,” Roesser added, recounting how he was given an extra vaccine card as an appointment reminder when he received his first shot. “We’re not going to ever get to a point where we, as a retailer, are going to have somebody at our door checking vaccination cards — unless we have a more effective way of verifying whether somebody truly is vaccinated or not.”
Restaurants and bars are more likely to tackle the challenge of requiring proof of vaccination, and about a dozen Philly-area operators had announced proof policies prior to Wednesday’s announcement. “I mean, who can keep a mask on in a bar? It just doesn’t work,” Sweitzer said.
But implementation differs from place to place, and the city offered no specifics on how it might be standardized.
“We’re asking businesses that do have a vaccination requirement to have a reasonable system for enforcing that,” said acting Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole on Wednesday. “To me, if they’re requiring a picture of somebody’s vaccine card, that seems like a reasonable system. They could just check the card itself, as well.” (Bettigole said the city would be issuing a “cheat sheet” for businesses requiring proof of vaccination, but it had not been posted as of Wednesday evening.)
The open-ended guidance puts restaurants — and staffers — in a tough position. Sojourn Philly founder Jill Weber welcomed the reinstated indoor-masking mandate but lamented that the city hadn’t gone a step further with proof-of-vaccination policy, as New York City has.
“They’re leaving all this stuff up to us, and it’s really a challenge,” Weber said. “I wish the city would have just said, ‘You need a vaccination to eat inside, period.’”
Weber worried that the burden of enforcing the vaccination policy mostly falls to staff, who then deal with confrontational customers in person and online. Hwang echoed that sentiment, and it’s something he plans to factor into his decision-making as he determines what Southgate’s policy will be.
“I’m really not trying to have a super Karen or some big, burly guy berating a 5-foot-2, young hostess about his freedoms,” he said. “The better part of the new guidelines is that people know that they should be vaccinated when they’re eating indoors, and restaurants will try to enforce that.”
Despite quibbles with the execution and enforcement, many felt positive about the city’s new policy overall. They hoped it would avert a significant spike in case rates (not to mention shutdowns), as well as provide cover for businesses playing by the rules.
“We are thrilled that [indoor masking] is now mandated by the Department of Health. It makes things so much easier for us to be able to say we are following public health mandate on this,” Roesser said. “Leaving it up to individual businesses to decide was just — it was anarchy.”