Is it time to permit outdoor dining at Philadelphia restaurants? We have to be realistic that the opening of indoor restaurants with sufficient patron density to operate without losing money, may not happen again without a COVID-19 vaccine. By swapping indoor dining rooms for outdoor seating, Philadelphia restaurants may be able to open sooner and safer.
Immediately, the governor needs to form a working group of health professionals and restaurant operators to determine when outdoor dining could be safely opened and to establish what practical operational procedures would be required to do so. The procedures could include requiring contact tracing logs, distance between tables, disposable service items, and the wearing of masks. By proclaiming that outdoor dining will be permitted before indoor dining, restaurant operators can start ordering equipment, buying supplies, talking with neighbors, and training staff to be ready.
I’ve been successfully operating restaurants in Center City that are exclusively or primarily outdoors, and the sacrifice of closing when it’s cold or wet is balanced by being busy when it’s warm and sunny. Increasing the number of outdoor seats or the distance between tables doesn’t require the expense of renovating and renting a larger restaurant; just finding more outdoor space. The six-month 2020 Philadelphia outdoor dining season, which typically runs from May through October, has already begun. Permitting indoor restaurants to temporarily adopt this business model is the best hope for preserving Philadelphia restaurants and their essential place in our city’s culture and economy.
According to the Economy League, the food economy accounts for 10% of all jobs and 19% of all establishments within the city as of 2018. With restaurants closed, thousands of Philly workers are going unpaid, and the city is losing valuable and much-needed tax revenue.
Philadelphia has been a pioneer in supporting and allowing urban outdoor dining. Many neighborhood restaurants already have the kitchens and bathrooms and other back-of-the-house infrastructure in place. Sit-down indoor restaurants that started opening exclusively for takeout have shown creative ways to add physically distant workspace by transforming indoor dining space into additional kitchens and server stations.
Expanding space for outdoor seating for existing restaurants is in the mayor’s control. Temporarily, for the length of this emergency, he could 1) permit sidewalk seating anywhere that is safe and practical; 2) transform street parking spaces near restaurants into outdoor seating as the city previously allowed under the Parklet program; 3) allow the use of parking lots and other private outdoor spaces for dining without zoning or non-safety permitting. With the governor’s help, the Liquor Control Board, as it did recently with golf courses, could temporarily allow existing liquor license holders to serve in adjacent or non-contiguous spaces.
With some creative public policy changes from the mayor and the governor, Philadelphia could safely eat out(side) again before the end of May.
Avram Hornik is the owner of Morgan’s Pier, Harper’s Garden, Rosy’s Taco Bar, Crafthall, Parks on Tap, and other Philadelphia restaurants.