The future for dining during a pandemic remains unclear. While some Philly restaurants reopened for outdoor seating after the city saw a lasting decline in cases, infection numbers started to tick back up last week. Officials announced Tuesday that they will not allow indoor dining to reopen as planned on July 3.
As restaurantgoers weigh health concerns against a desire to support a struggling industry, we asked a physician based in the city and a diner based in the suburbs: Do you feel safe now dining outdoors in Philly?
By Priya Mammen
It is near impossible to explain how important dining out is to me. Whether for celebration or comfort, giggly gatherings with friends or quiet moments with my husband, the chefs and restaurant staff of Philadelphia have kept me well — offering safe haven, sustenance, debauchery, and visceral satiety on profound levels.
As a physician and public health specialist, I have been keenly attuned to COVID-19′s clinical impact. I watched in real time as the curves declined in other countries where strict regulations were imposed, adequate PPE and testing resources were deployed, and people adjusted to the reality that during a pandemic, the greater good mattered more than individual convenience.
Leaders in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania made difficult decisions early on. We averted thousands of infections and hundreds of deaths, resulting in Pennsylvania at one point being just one of three states in the U.S. with persistently declining numbers. Despite this, our cases may now be increasing.
Reopening heightens our need for awareness and personal responsibility to ensure that any progress so far is not invalidated. Reopening does not mean there is no longer need to worry, as other states have shown. Our testing is imperfect, hospital beds remain finite, and we do not have extensive contact tracing in place to counter additional outbreaks.
Nonetheless, it’s gut-wrenching to watch businesses in my community and the city suffer from the shutdown impact. It also gets progressively more difficult to watch people rail against lockdown life, yet refuse to take the necessary steps — wearing masks and keeping distance — to get back to normal sooner.
Many things hang in the balance of this moment — health and safety first and foremost, but also restaurants as a beloved part of our culture. Philly has to find ways to adapt to current realities and follow universal safety precautions for dining out. I have and will go out as a couple and nuclear family, but it all hinges on caution and efforts to be judicious. My family and I will stay close to home, patronizing restaurants in our local community to minimize travel and exposure. We will stay outdoors.
The issue is not exclusively with restaurant enforcement. It comes down to all of us Philadelphians — whether we appreciate the far-reaching ramifications of the simple acts of wearing masks, washing hands, and keeping distance at all possible times. We look to government and businesses to set the tone, but the success of our COVID curve lands squarely on the shoulders of the public — each other.
The sharp irony is that those I know in the food and restaurant industry are extremely fastidious about cleanliness. They are acutely aware of the ramifications of unsafe practices — ranging from a poor dining experience to spreading foodborne illness, and now to worsening a pandemic.
The entire ritual of going out is a micro-reflection of everything meaningful to me: enjoying the skills of uniquely trained cadre, focused time with loved ones, basking in creativity, engaging with entities that at best represent their communities — and of course, eating really well. Philly’s restaurant scene reflects everything that makes our city fierce: culture, history, grit, hard work, diversity, collaboration, and an inviting facade behind which lives unadulterated authenticity.
If we all want to enjoy, celebrate, and be fed, we must not become complacent, but instead more attentive. We must do our part as individuals, diners, and restaurant staff to ensure we stay well. Only that will allow our restaurants and businesses not only to survive — but thrive again.
Priya Mammen is an emergency physician, public health specialist, fellow of the Lindy Institute of Urban Innovation, and adjunct faculty at the University of Pennsylvania.
By Davis Giangiulio
Today, I feel comfortable going to a restaurant to eat outdoors. Take careful note of what I just said: “a” restaurant, not all. That is because not all are operating the same.
In Center City during the “yellow phase” of reopening, left with little sidewalk space, many eateries crammed as many tables and chairs outside their businesses as they could. This left maskless diners sitting close to not just their party, but near other customers as well, and adjacent to many maskless pedestrians going along their day.
Automatically I got flashbacks to images and reports that came out of states like Arizona, Texas, and Florida when they first opened up. People impatient to get outside and businesses itching to bounce back broke distancing guidelines, apparently forgetting the pandemic. Those same states are now witnessing a wave of infections, a rise in hospitalizations, and a surge of cases.
While the spacing in Center City was disastrous, one restaurant I dined at in South Philadelphia presented the gold standard. With a large parking lot, they were able to place six picnic benches and two tables spread out across the area. Sitting maskless at the table was a stress-free event as you were well over six feet away from other customers. The only person you came in any close contact with was the host and your waiter, who sometimes were the same person. (In both locations, servers carefully wore masks throughout.) This is how it should be: little interaction with, and proximity to, the fewest people as possible.
Clearly, the South Philadelphia location was following social distancing guidelines much better than some in Center City. While it is understandable for these businesses to try to get as many people as possible to dine, especially considering the impact of the coronavirus on the economy, they should closely adhere to guidelines in the name of public safety. Their ability to do that, however, may require further intervention from the city to make these locations friendlier to health guidelines than they are now.
Center City does not have huge open spaces like South Philadelphia. Therefore, the city should accommodate these businesses’ needs and give them more space. This can be done by shutting down streets or alleyways adjacent to restaurants, allowing for more seating.
This proposal should face little opposition from residents who overwhelmingly are looking for ways to get outside of the house after months of lockdown and do it safely. The plan should also accommodate critical routes that emergency services need to use, and not shut down so many roads or alleys that the city becomes impossible to navigate.
As the city considers phases of reopening where indoor dining can take place, restaurants should still be encouraged to place customers outside where the virus is less likely to spread. Inside, they should open up windows and doors so air can circulate throughout the eatery. If that is not possible, restaurants that place diners inside should mandate mask usage even when at the table, except when eating, to further limit the spread of disease.
Eating out a few weeks ago was something I would not even consider. The good news is I learned there is a way to be socially distant and reduce — ideally stop — the spread of disease while dining. The South Philadelphia eatery proves that. The question is whether we will do more for our other dining locations across the region to make sure we do not see a public health emergency arise again.
Davis Giangiulio is a student at Lower Merion High School and a lifelong resident of the Philadelphia suburbs.