Have you heard the good news? Restaurants are back to normal! I guess there’s no need to clog up public sidewalks with makeshift outdoor spaces, right? Right?
Of course, you know I am wrong if you’ve tried to traverse Center City any evening lately. Not only are Philadelphians hustling and bustling as close to normal as we’ve been in over a year, but we’re also now waiting for others to pass so we can awkwardly amble by people stuffing their faces.
First, why any diners find this spin on al fresco — my effectively interrupting their dinner so I can walk by — charming is beyond me. Then again, I eat corner-store cheesesteaks.
Second, what do these restaurateurs think they’re doing, effectively privatizing a public space to increase their capacity and likewise their revenue while impeding our ability to pass by?
This is America. Everything has a price. And the people paying for those so-called charming outdoor spaces held up by 2x4s with dorm-room accents are you and I.
We accept these outdoor venues and the accompanying clogged streets at a great loss: public space that everyone can use regardless of who they are, how much money they have, or pretty much anything else so they can conduct their own business, be it commercial or personal.
Sidewalks are public spaces that must be maintained by the accompanying property owners. So while I’m on the hook for keeping the walk in front of my house shoveled after a snowstorm, I can’t annex it and block it with my grill or seating because it’s a public space. It feels unfair until you realize how many people’s houses you walk by and why this is necessary for you to go to your job and then pay taxes. Try to attend a vaccine appointment without using a sidewalk.
In other words, public routes are necessary for our free society to operate. Laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act in turn make requirements of government as well as private people and businesses so that people living with disabilities can more fully participate in this free society.
So when a restaurant annexes whole sidewalks using COVID-19 as cover for a privatization power grab, I have a problem with it. Is this even legal?
I asked the Kenney administration (full disclosure, I worked in the Mayor’s Office from 2016-19 and then in city government until recently) what was going on. In between the talking points, I learned that outdoor alternatives, including the permitted structures on sidewalks as well as the so-called streeteries, that offered a lifeline to restaurants during quarantine are allowed to operate through the end of the year.
Given the horrific effect COVID-19 has had on everyone, whether we’re talking the incalculable loss of over 600,000 American lives or the hollowing out of entire industries, these kinds of concessions are welcome and understandable. After all, mortgage companies let us defer payments. Landlords couldn’t evict us. Water flowed whether we paid our bills or not. Businesses deserve similar concessions. Whether these continue or to what extent after Dec. 31 is up to the public, city leaders, and local restaurants.
Over the next few months, those of us interested in an egalitarian society will be paying attention to who gets greedy and who doesn’t completely block the sidewalk.
But speaking with the city, I also learned that outdoor dining must have an accessible pedestrian path at least six feet wide, making way for those on foot or in wheelchairs. Anyone can report violators to Philly 311. As things stand, that would be a lot of reports.
Here’s the thing, local restaurants: Over the next few months, those of us interested in an egalitarian society that invites all people regardless of disability status or anything else to participate will be paying attention to who gets greedy and who doesn’t completely block the sidewalk. It’s unfettered greed to squeeze so many tables onto a sidewalk that people in wheelchairs or with other mobility concerns cannot pass by. Civil rights have priority over economics.
I promise that, at least in my case, I won’t oppose making these outdoor spaces permanent, even — so long as you can get a wheelchair through on any given night.
But if establishments continue to abuse this program, I will not just fantasize about taking an ax to your awnings. Instead, I and many others will be calling our city councilmembers every day, pointing out that accessibility is not a perk but instead a civil rights issue and urging the city to end this program — whether for just you, or for everyone.
Josh Kruger is an award-winning (and losing) writer in Philadelphia.