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Even when the pandemic passes, outdoor dining in Philly should be given a chance to stay | Editorial

While sidewalk cafes and streeteries do have some associated challenges, they have helped restaurants weather the pandemic — and they should be allowed to stay in place in the years to come.

A table in La Casita, Bar Bombón's streetery, shows the potential of the thoughtful streeteries that Domb's bill seeks to encourage
A table in La Casita, Bar Bombón's streetery, shows the potential of the thoughtful streeteries that Domb's bill seeks to encourageRead moreAlex Cahanap

Getting Philadelphians out of their houses and into the city’s struggling restaurants after the first COVID-19 shutdown last March was no easy task. Still hesitant about the spread of COVID-19, many diners were leery of eating indoors and the potential for spreading or contracting the virus. So with support from emergency legislation, many restaurants launched sidewalk cafes and streeteries, so that people could eat outdoors, an activity endorsed as safe by the CDC. The move, supported by temporary city legislation, served as a lifeline to Philly’s floundering dining industry.

» READ MORE: Domb proposes permanent status, regulation, for streeteries

It is encouraging news then that Councilmember Allan Domb, with six co-sponsors from around the city and across the ideological spectrum, has proposed a worthwhile pair of bills to make outdoor dining a permanent feature in Philadelphia. Domb’s bills don’t just ensure that streeteries will stick around for good, it formalizes the process for operating them and puts in place uniform standards for maintaining them.

Domb’s office worked alongside accessibility advocates to ensure that outdoor eateries comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act while also providing enough space for pedestrians. It formalizes a process for residents and neighborhood groups to raise concerns about streeteries in their neighborhoods if they fall short of the rules. If structures don’t conform to regulations, the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections would be able to take them down. In addition, making the streeteries permanent provides business owners with an incentive to invest in creating aesthetically pleasing structures that add to our city’s overall look and feel, rather than some of the more ad hoc, ramshackle, and slapdash set-ups that were hastily built over the last year.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the change, however. Even though seven of his colleagues support the measure, Council President Darrell L. Clarke has questioned the wisdom of implementing the bill. In a letter to his fellow Councilmembers, Clarke argued that the proposal does not allow for enough transparency and public input in the process of approving street closures and claims that many bars and restaurants are operating at or near pre pandemic levels economically.

» READ MORE: The best streeteries in Philadelphia

Yet while data does suggest an uptick in food service jobs, the city is still far below pre-pandemic levels. In fact, Philadelphia is closer to its April 2020 employment levels in the industry than we are to December 2019. Roughly 80% of restaurant owners responding to an industry survey reported lower sales than August 2019, and this is among those who have managed to stay in business.

Furthermore, if the fully vaccinated members of City Council are still meeting virtually, they should understand why many city residents and tourists are still reluctant to eat indoors.

The streetery experience in Philadelphia hasn’t been perfect. Legitimate complaints about appearance, maintenance, and the effect on people with disabilities and other mobility issues have persisted. But Domb’s bills, crafted with the input of a cross section of Philadelphians, allows us to keep these structures, which have helped stem the spread of COVID-19 and aided livelihoods, while addressing lingering concerns. A recent survey from StreetboxPHL noted that our fellow Philadelphians believe that the structures promote joy and safety. When have we ever needed those two things more?