Philly says it will enforce vaccine requirement for indoor dining. But it’s shut down only 19 restaurants for COVID violations.
The city relies on infrequent food safety inspections to check if restaurants follow the COVID-19 rules.
Philadelphia will require thousands of businesses to check patrons’ proof of COVID-19 vaccination beginning in January, a stringent new rule that theoretically carries a $2,000-per-day penalty for those that don’t comply.
But a review of city records shows few businesses have gotten into serious trouble for noncompliance with coronavirus restrictions since the pandemic began, suggesting enforcement may remain scarce even under the new, tougher guidelines.
A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Public Health said it did not track the number of violations of COVID-19 restrictions it had issued, or how often it had taken any enforcement actions.
An Inquirer analysis shows serious action, particularly against bars or restaurants, was exceedingly rare.
Health inspection reports show that since July 2020, the city issued COVID-related, cease-operation orders — which close an establishment for two days — to just 19 restaurants, bars, or nightclubs. According to The Inquirer’s analysis, the most recent cease-operation order was in May.
The city acknowledged the figures were “plausible.” Kevin Lessard, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney, said the paucity of enforcement was, in part, intentional.
“We understand it may take some time for businesses to become aware of the new policies and will take that into consideration when enforcing,” he said. “The city’s goal has never been to punish or fine businesses but to protect Philadelphians and save lives.”
That’s particularly true for fines. Health department spokesperson James Garrow said the city had fined “a few gyms” for COVID violations but no other businesses, and “has no firm plans to fine a food establishment at this time.”
For most, he said, “issuing a cease-operations order is much more financially damaging than a $2,000 fine.”
Philadelphia allows businesses to choose between requiring masks or checking vaccine cards, but starting Jan. 3, any indoor establishment that serves food will have to verify a patron’s vaccination status at the door. That means staff at restaurants, catering halls, theaters, casinos, bowling alleys, and even the Wells Fargo Center will be responsible for checking cards. Exceptions are permitted for children under age 5 and people with medical or religious exemptions for vaccination, but members of those groups must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test if entering a venue that holds more than 1,000 people.
The policy is similar to existing mandates in New York and San Francisco. While more popular than outright lockdowns, vaccine requirements in both cities have prompted pushback from patrons and businesses alike.
In New York, enforcement of the mandatory vaccination policy for restaurants, gyms, and entertainment venues began in September. Days later, Inside Edition tested enforcement at 15 Manhattan restaurants and found that only four asked for proof of vaccination. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a month after city inspections began that only 15 businesses had been fined for not enforcing the policy, according to the Associated Press, after officials said they had conducted more than 31,000 inspections and issued 6,000 warnings in the first month of the new policy. De Blasio pointed to the low number of businesses fined as evidence that the majority were following the rules.
Food safety inspections aren’t frequent for Philadelphia restaurants. While the city aims to inspect all such establishments annually, per federal guidelines, it doesn’t always hit that goal. And officials have said the frequency of inspections dropped during the pandemic.
Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said the city will ramp up enforcement of the new rule if needed but plans to follow the model it used for current and prior coronavirus restrictions, with inspectors responding to specific complaints and checking on COVID-19 safety measures during routine visits.
“We start with education and our inspectors go out and of course they’re going to make sure that people understand the new mandate,” she said. “But we will do enforcement involving fines of potentially up to $2,000 per day if we have to. We hope not to do that.”
Bettigole acknowledged that health department inspectors have in the past shut down restaurants due to violations of coronavirus restrictions, ”but it’s certainly not the norm.”
Jennifer Kolker, a clinical professor at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health, said a limited, tiered enforcement strategy that was responsive to complaints made sense.
“What I would not want to see, in the midst of a pandemic, is Philadelphia’s Public Health Department to be upping enforcement of carding in restaurants when they should be out there doing testing or contact tracing or vaccine outreach,” she said. “There are just so many more important things to do than [restaurant] enforcement.”
She predicted that the vaccine mandate will be popular, with some exceptions. “I think many businesses will embrace this decision,” she said. “And many patrons will embrace this decision.”
Byblos Restaurant & Hookah Bar in Center City was one of the handful of restaurants that received a cease-operation order over coronavirus restrictions. In July 2020, inspectors cited lack of masks and social distancing and shut the restaurant down. Co-owner Mike Sawan said it was difficult to control crowds on sidewalks when only outdoor dining was available.
“It wasn’t customers that were hovering over the tables,” he said. “[It was] just people walking by saying, ‘I see you with your friends and I know you.’”
Sawan said he has since ended outdoor dining at his restaurant and welcomes the city’s new vaccine rule. But he’d like stricter enforcement because it’s difficult to comply when another bar down the street isn’t. He said he’d also like the city to crack down on underground hookah establishments that evade all regulations and have popped up around the city during the pandemic.
“If you want to enforce something, enforce it throughout,” he said. “Don’t pick and choose.”