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Philly Restaurant Owners Have Mixed Feelings About the Return of Indoor Dining

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Restaurants will be allowed to operate their dining rooms at 25 percent capacity starting September 8, though some venues are not confident it can be done safely

diners eating at sidewalk tables in front of a restaurant with a black and red facade
The owners of Bud & Marilyn’s plan to open the restaurant for indoor dining when it’s permitted in Philadelphia next week.
Bondfire Media

After two false starts, Philadelphia will allow indoor dining to resume September 8, almost exactly six months after Pennsylvania ordered restaurants to close on March 16 in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. While some restaurant owners are ready to get going, others are adopting a “wait and see” approach.

“This is about people eating with members of their household,” health commissioner Thomas Farley said when the news was announced, making the point that Philadelphians should continue to follow social-distancing guidelines and keep away from people outside of their household bubble. To that end, when indoor dining starts, restaurants are required to limit tables to four people and ensure 6 feet of space between diners at different tables. Dining rooms are limited to 25 percent capacity, and no one can be seated or served at a bar. Servers are required to wear both masks and face shields.

City officials also warned that the start of indoor dining is dependent on the downward trend in COVID-19 cases in Philly continuing, and said they may backtrack if indoor dining seems to be contributing to an increase in cases.

The fact that the city set a date then pushed it back twice already may explain the lukewarm response to this announcement from businesses. Each time the preparations begin for indoor dining, restaurants spend money stocking kitchens and reconfiguring spaces to follow safety regulations. Owners say these last-minute cancellations have cost them thousands of dollars — devastating in a time when cash is already tight.

Some small, independent restaurants, like Stina in Newbold and River Twice on East Passyunk Avenue, both of which opened last year, have no plans to begin indoor dining. Others say they’ll wait to see how it goes at other businesses before trying it themselves. Within large restaurant groups, there’s more interest.

Stephen Starr of Starr Restaurants, which operates 20 venues in Philadelphia alone, told Eater through a company representative that it’s too early to discuss exactly what indoor dining will look like at his restaurants, including Buddakan, Parc, El Vez, Barclay Prime, and other perennially popular spots. The rep confirmed the group does plan to open dining rooms, but it may not be on September 8.

Valerie Safran, co-owner of Safran Turney Hospitality, says she and chef Marcie Turney will open four of their restaurants — Barbuzzo, Lolita, Little Nonna’s, and Bud & Marilyn’s — for indoor dining next week. They’re in the process of implementing “proper safety precautions,” she says.

“We know it won’t generate much added revenue,” Safran says. “But we welcome the opportunity to take baby steps here and make sure this can be done in a safe manner.”

people eating at sidewalk tables in front of a restaurant with a black facade and string lights, with wood fencing blocking the tables from the street
When the city allows it, Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney will resume indoor dining at four restaurants, including Barbuzzo.
Bondfire Media

For Steak 48, an upscale steakhouse with locations in Houston, Charlotte, and Chicago, a safe manner meant reconfiguring the restaurant, which was originally slated to open in April. Instead, it will open its doors for the first time on September 15. Owners Jeffrey Mastro, Michael Mastro, and Scott Trolio redesigned the space: Large-scale flower arrangements create barriers that encourage social distancing, and stations with hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, and hand soap are set up throughout the restaurant. A cleaning staff is assigned to frequently disinfect high-touch surfaces, like doorknobs, tables, and bathroom fixtures, and diners have the option to pay the check directly from their smartphones.

“[I feel] kind of numb,” says Ellen Yin, founder and owner of High Street Hospitality, which operates Fork, A.Kitchen, A.Bar, High Street Provisions, and the closing-soon High Street on Market. “So much has happened in the past five months. Twenty-five percent may not be a complete game changer, but it does give a backup plan in the event of rain and cold, and it’s a starting place.”

Yin says she doesn’t yet have plans in place to open the restaurants for indoor dining, and part of her hesitation is what it means for staff. “We need the public to take the concerns of our team members seriously,” she says. “Please wear a mask when your server approaches the table.”

Even with restaurants and diners strictly following pandemic safety guidelines, which minimize but don’t eliminate risk, the 25 percent capacity rule means it may not be worth it to reopen. Keenan Anderson, a bartender and server who has worked at the Havana-themed Cuba Libre in Old City for more than five years and within the service industry for a decade, says he feels safe going to work indoors at his restaurant but he’s worried about being able to make enough money with fewer customers.

“Cuba Libre, from the start of this, had a blueprint that they followed,” Anderson says. “I sat through a very long training meeting about indoor dining procedures. It’s a great company and I trust them to keep me safe. But from a financial standpoint, I can’t make enough money to make it make sense.”

The solution, he says, is increased minimum wage — the mandated minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.83 an hour — and a federal bailout for small restaurants.

“I think the restaurateurs, especially the big ones, need to step up,” Anderson says. “What are these people with immigration issues going to do? They don’t have a voice. I’ve had people crying in front of me saying, ‘My boss thinks they can just fire me and I’ll have to go back to my country.’ That’s fucked up. I have a coworker who is 21 years old with a baby. He doesn’t have anything else. The people in power, if they want their doors open, there needs to be a discussion. And if they don’t want to have it, I would like to have it with Mayor Kenney.”

Anderson’s frustration is echoed by many hospitality industry professionals faced with a choice of staying home even as unemployment benefits run out or returning to a work environment where they’re unable to match their pre-pandemic incomes, or even support themselves. Their concerns are at odds with some influential restaurant owners who have been vocal about the need to resume indoor dining.

As previous last-minute delays in indoor dining by the city have shown, restaurateurs don’t really know what’s going to happen until it’s happening. But if the downward trend in coronavirus cases continues, with the test positivity rate 4 percent or under, Philadelphians may see the inside of restaurants for the first time since March.