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In a Pandemic-Era First for Philly, Old City Quietly Closed the Street to Cars to Make Room for Outdoor Dining

Several Old City restaurants set up tables on Second Street over the weekend during a temporary street closure

people eating at outdoor tables with green umbrellas Courtesy of Old City District

After all the back and forth in Philly over closing streets to cars to make room for outdoor dining, with neighborhoods announcing and then canceling temporary street closures, one neighborhood managed to pull it off. Over the weekend, Second Street between Market and Chestnut was blocked off, with nine restaurants setting up tables on the street for what Old City District dubbed the “Old City Outdoor Dining Room.” Each restaurant had its own dining area, separated from the others with bike racks.

“It finally felt like a restaurant again. It felt almost normal. We’re designed to be an intimate fine-dining establishment — we’re not a takeout spot,” says Mei Mei owner Jay Ho, who opened the upscale Taiwanese restaurant at 33 S. Second Street on March 12, just a few days before the governor ordered a statewide restaurant shutdown. He started takeout service in April and in June, when it became an option, added outdoor dining, though with social distancing there’s only space for five tables. With Second Street blocked off, he could add a dozen more.

“It went great. Everyone seemed to enjoy it,” Ho says of the street closure, which started Friday evening and lasted through Sunday. “I think we were like the guinea pig, for the city to see how it would go.”

Justin Blasi

Temporarily street closures are one of the options the City of Philadelphia offers to restaurants looking to expand outdoor dining while indoor dining is prohibited during the coronavirus pandemic (indoor dining is not currently allowed within Philly; it is permitted in the rest of Pennsylvania, but limited to 25 percent capacity). The street closures are intended for multiple restaurants to make use of at the same time.

The East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District was the first to announce a street closure, originally planned for the weekend of July 10 to 12. Shortly after, the Northern Liberties Business Improvement District revealed plans for a one-day street closure on July 11. While Old City District never made an official announcement, it was also prepping for a street closure that same weekend.

The response to the impending closures was mixed, with some people fearing a summer festival–like atmosphere that would lead to insufficient social distancing and attendees not wearing masks. (And even following guidelines perfectly means reducing risk, not eliminating risk.) Add to that a weather forecast predicting torrential storms and an incident in Old City where a bar owner pulled a gun on a passerby who yelled at diners for not social distancing. The neighborhood organizations, with the city, decided they weren’t ready and canceled.

When Old City District made the call to go ahead with a street closure for July 17 to 19, they kept it relatively quiet.

“It wasn’t a secret, but Old City District was concerned that if there was a big press push, it would be too many people and turn into a street festival instead of a dining room. The city was scrutinizing it, and we didn’t want it to be overrun,” says Barry Gutin, principal and co-founder of Cuba Libre, the Havana-themed restaurant that opened in Old City in 2000 and now has locations in Atlantic City, Orlando, and Washington, D.C.

After closing on March 16, the Philly Cuba Libre didn’t reopen until July 3. Gutin and team had thought they were preparing for indoor dining, and created a 65-page manual outlining health and safety protocols. Indoor dining didn’t wind up happening, but Cuba Libre did start takeout service and outdoor dining, creating an enclosed, plant-filled area in a parking lane outside the restaurant (a “streetery,” or parklet). Pre-COVID 19, the restaurant sat 140. With this past weekend’s street closure, Cuba Libre was able to add 13 more tables, for a total of around 80 seats.

Justin Blasi

Restaurants were instructed to space tables 6 feet apart, disinfect after each service, and limit party size to six people. Diners were required to make reservations, wear masks in order to be seated, and, if they had to go inside the restaurant to get to the bathroom, go in one at a time, mask on. Two “dining room supervisors” were on hand to keep an eye on things. Old City, which is packed with restaurants and bars and has at times been known as a rowdy area on weekends, also has a roving security team on Friday and Saturday nights.

City officials, including three from the health department, showed up on Friday “very diligently making sure it was safe,” Gutin says. “The city gave us an ‘A’ grade.”

In addition to the nine designated outdoor dining rooms, which could each fit up to about 50 seated customers, there are six restaurant parklets on the block, as well as a couple of restaurants that didn’t directly participate in the street closure because they have their own outdoor cafe areas.

“It was important to the city that it did not come across as a block party,” says Mark Beyerle, an event coordinator who was brought in to help facilitate (Old City District executive director Job Itzkowitz notes that this was not an event; it was just extra seating for restaurants).

Justin Blasi

Old City District got the permit three days after applying, Beyerle says, adding that everyone was looking at this street closure as a test run for how it might work in other neighborhoods. “The city wanted this to work,” he says. “I’m really happy with how it went.”

Old City restaurant owners hope since this first one went smoothly, it might happen every weekend. One change both Gutin and Ho would like to see is extended hours: Restaurants needed to be cleaned up and closed by 10 p.m. on Saturday and 9 p.m. on Sunday, which means last seatings had to be at least an hour earlier.

“I think the first one was a learning experience, and we didn’t want to be overwhelmed,” Ho says. “But Old City doesn’t usually even get going until later. We were busy at 8 [on Saturday], but then had to tell people we couldn’t seat them after that because we had to be cleaned up by 10.”

Gutin doesn’t think later hours would lead to lax social distancing as long as reservations are required, diners have to sit at a table, and there’s no walk-up bar service.

Diners booking tables for earlier in the day, or for a weeknight, would also help, he says: “With fewer seats, we hope guests consider coming on off nights and off hours. And we hope guests keep the reservations they make.”