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Could Outdoor Dining Return to Pennsylvania by Mid-June?

Restaurants in Philly and beyond want sidewalk and patio seating allowed in the yellow phase of Pennsylvania’s reopening

outdoor deck with people at picnic tables under colorful sunbrellas with a bridge in the background
Morgan’s Pier on the Delaware River waterfront in Philadelphia
Zach Fratella

Philadelphians may be able to enjoy outdoor meals at local restaurants in a few weeks, if restaurant owners can convince officials in Harrisburg to make some policy changes.

A number of Philadelphia restaurateurs are working with the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association (PRLA), which promotes the state’s hospitality industry, to ask Gov. Tom Wolf to allow outdoor dining for counties in the yellow phase of COVID-19 reopening. There is also a bill moving through the state House of Representatives, introduced by Rep. Garth Everett (R., Lycoming), that would allow outdoor seating in the yellow phase. Restaurants would be expected to follow health and safety guidelines issued by the CDC and the state.

Under Wolf’s three-phase plan for reopening Pennsylvania during the coronavirus pandemic, a county is designated red, yellow, or green based on several factors, including the number of new coronavirus cases and local testing and contact tracing capabilities. During the red and yellow phases, restaurants can only offer takeout and delivery — no dining on the premises, indoors or out.

No counties have reached the green phase, which represents a near return to normal, but much of the state is now in yellow. It’s possible that the Philadelphia region will enter the yellow phase when the governor’s stay-at-home order ends, which was recently extended for the city until June 4.

“One-hundred percent” of PRLA’s Philly-based membership — which includes prominent groups like CookNSolo, Garces Group, High Street Hospitality, and Starr Restaurants — as well as members statewide are hopeful that the government will change its policies to allow outdoor dining in the yellow phase by the time Philadelphia goes yellow, according to Ben Fileccia, director of operations and strategy for the advocacy group.

Related to PRLA’s efforts, Avram Hornik, who owns multiple Philadelphia venues including Morgan’s Pier, the huge outdoor bar on the Delaware River, and Harper’s Garden, an indoor/outdoor eatery in Rittenhouse, is looking at solutions not tied to the color designations and envisioning a scenario where outdoor dining is permitted in Philly in a few weeks regardless of what color phase the city is officially in. He publicly asked the governor to form a group of restaurant operators and health professionals to craft a plan for outdoor dining that follows health and safety protocols and could be implemented soon.

From May to October, Hornik’s restaurants and bars usually employ 450 people, but he laid off most of his staff in mid-March when dining rooms and bars were ordered to close. Should outdoor dining be permitted, he estimates bringing “everyone back, plus more.”

outdoor seating at a restaurant with lots of plants
Rittenhouse restaurant Harper’s Garden includes a large outdoor dining area.
Zach Fratella for FCM

Hornik thinks that outdoor dining could “give people a sense of hope” as Philadelphia starts its recovery. “It will give a wonderful energy to the neighborhoods after all of us have been stuck inside and isolated for so long,” he says. “We need physical distance, but social togetherness.”

In about two-thirds of U.S. states, restaurants have already been allowed to reopen dining rooms and/or outdoor areas in some capacity. PRLA president and CEO John Longstreet thinks Pennsylvania should adopt similar guidelines to those in Ohio, including extra space between tables, face masks for staff, and frequent sanitizing of surfaces. The PRLA is also advocating for policy changes to allow restaurants to create new outdoor sections — on sidewalks, parking lots, and other areas around their properties — that would help restaurants seat more people while providing distance between tables.

For restaurants that don’t currently have permits for outdoor seating, Longstreet says his organization would work with counties, municipalities, and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to help expedite approvals for restaurants that want to serve outside. Any policy change on outdoor dining will likely be temporary and may end once restaurants are back in normal, pre-coronavirus operation, he adds.

Longstreet says that PRLA and its members have been having “meaningful conversations” with Gov. Wolf, and he along with Hornik and Qamara Edwards, president of the Philadelphia chapter of PRLA, expect that a policy change on outdoor dining would come directly from the governor’s office. Eater reached out to the governor for comment. As those discussions happen, the state House bill to include outdoor seating in the yellow phase could be voted on as soon as this week.

While restaurateurs and industry groups push for policy changes, they’re doing their best to prepare for them. Edwards is the director of business and events for Sojourn Philly, which includes Cafe Ynez on Washington Avenue and Jet Wine Bar and Rex 1516, both on South Street. She says maintaining social distancing protocols would be possible in the outdoor wine garden her team opened adjacent to Jet last summer, and Rex 1516 has a permit for sidewalk tables.

But there are no plans to reopen any of the restaurants for on-premises dining until health authorities clear it, and she is waiting for guidance on safety regulations from both the city and the state.

“Our top priority is the safety of our staff and the safety of all guests,” Edwards says, “so things like flow of traffic, keeping pathways to bathrooms clear, separate entrances for delivery vendors, and overall sanitation remain of the highest concern for us.”