As we envision a limited, “reopened” life that will characterize this year of the COVID-19 pandemic, space for social distance is the most vital commodity. We don’t have enough of it. One thing we do have is enough time. By extending the social and business hours of our society, we can make more use of our limited space. We can safely employ more people and do more of the things that make us feel human. The City of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania can create more room for social distance by creating a 24-hour economy as soon as possible. Then when this plague is over, it should stay that way.
Imagine a restaurant with 30 tables. With social distancing, sanitizing, and protective equipment in place, it seats 10 RSVP-only tables and employs a fraction of its staff. It struggles to pay bills. Even with expanded sidewalk seating, the business, employees, and landlord are all in trouble. Now imagine an extra shift serving newly late-night workers and students leaving newly scheduled night classes. A whole economy making more use of the day: more food and drink served, more jobs retained, more rent and taxes paid.
What do we stand to gain from longer hours? The city controller projects a massive budget hole due to lost sales and wage tax. More revenue from extended hours means fewer service cuts, tax hikes, and layoffs. We can decongest transit, parks, businesses, and streets. We can also enhance the revenues of neighborhood businesses and nightlife establishments, including those that are safe havens for LGBTQ communities. Without drastic measures, these businesses will fail in the coming year.
The night shift was once a familiar institution. Life in my hometown of Pittsburgh revolved around the mill’s schedule — overcrowded pre-war schools ran half-time and evening schedules. Today, in Bangalore, India, call centers serving the Western Hemisphere keep the service economy going all night. In Arizona, construction work and exercise take place before dawn to beat the summer heat. Berlin has been a 24-hour city since 1949, when the American military governor eliminated its curfew to reduce crowding at closing time.
Times of crisis call for experimental policies, and some stick. The elimination of West Berlin’s curfew came amidst massive post-WWII change. The concept endured, and Berlin became one of the world’s nightlife, tourism, and tech capitals. The despair of the Depression brought about Social Security and other popular U.S. government programs. If I told you last year that Pennsylvania’s Fine Wine and Good Spirits stores would do online delivery, you would have questioned my sanity. Soon, that might be the new normal.
Several steps can be taken to open the night for business. State legislation is required for Philadelphia to allow restaurants and other spaces serving alcohol to stay open past 2 a.m. Licensing and zoning codes and procedures can be altered to allow spaces to be temporarily used in new ways. Establishments used for assembly could put their space to alternative, socially distant uses. Insurers will need to be flexible with their customers’ new needs — perhaps mandated by new regulations. Operational standards can prioritize the safety of patrons and workers. Most importantly, we need leadership to recommend or mandate that industries and institutions distance their operations in time and space.
Philadelphia would benefit from late-night licensing for the arts after the crisis is over. Arts and hospitality generate jobs, tax revenue, and creative energy. They will be devastated in the coming year. Longer hours will allow for more entertainment, tourism, and tax revenue. Elimination of hard closing times can reduce problematic crowding and decrease binge-drinking. Many cities utilize late licenses to drive the arts and tourism sectors. Amsterdam uses them to leverage amenities like community space, street-scaping improvements, and safety ambassadors.
The nuisance, noise, and antisocial behavior sometimes associated with late-night hours can be reduced through good governance. Our neighbors Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. have municipal offices and strategies for governing the nighttime economy. Many cities employ a “night mayor” to convene neighbors, artists, officials, and establishment owners to create proactive relationships and mediate disputes. London gives this office purview over the entire nighttime economy, not just “nightlife.”
The best check on antisocial behavior is the social compact between an establishment and its patrons. This comes in the form of programming — music, food, service, and ambiance that create a sense of ownership by patrons and lead to respectful behavior. This year, that sense is also generated by a greater appreciation for what we used to take for granted. A restaurateur I spoke to last week told me that operating at a loss this year is worth it because he’s doing something for the community.