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Philly Restaurants Can Double Indoor Seating Starting This Weekend — But There’s a Catch

Restaurants must comply with enhanced ventilation standards before expanding to 50-percent capacity

gloved hand placing sign that says sanitized on restaurant table
Philly restaurants will have to spend money to meet the city’s latest COVID-19 reopening requirements.
AJ Alleyne/Cuba Libre

Philly restaurants can start filling up half their dining rooms just in time for Valentine’s Day weekend, but they must first front the cash to meet newly heightened air quality standards set by the city.

On Tuesday, public health officials gave restaurants the green light to boost indoor capacity limits from 25 to 50 percent starting Friday, February 12, as long as they adhere to revised ventilation guidelines designed to improve indoor air flow. Applications showing compliance will be reviewed and approved by the Department of Public Health within 72 hours.

While the ability to seat more paying customers is a positive, many restaurants say the city’s latest set of COVID-19 reopening protocols are too arduous and pricey to entertain.

“The process as currently written is still difficult, cumbersome and expensive for most restaurants to try to comply with, at a time when we are already skating on thin ice,” says Nicole Marquis, founder of Save Philly Restaurants and owner of HipCityVeg.

In order to raise capacity to 50 percent, restaurants are required to pass an air quality test by meeting the following guidelines:

  • HVAC system is fully operational and ventilates the entire indoor dining area.
  • At least 20 percent outside is air circulated by HVAC system.
  • Filtration MERV 11 or higher.
  • At least 15 air exchanges per hour are measured indoors.
  • Exhaust vent has a minimum six-foot clearance from tables, chairs, or other items.

Cuba Libre Restaurant and Rum Bar co-owner Barry Gutin tells CBS Philly its virus-killing measure to install lights in the ductwork isn’t recognized in the city’s latest set of strict regulations.

“Unfortunately, we’re going to have to spend even more money to change our control board,” he says.

Save Philly Restaurants — a pandemic-era coalition of 300 restaurants that regularly meets with city officials — presented alternate and cheaper ways restaurants could improve circulation and filtration, but those suggestions didn’t make the cut. Allowing stand-alone air purification units without exhaust was one, says Marquis.

Restaurants resumed indoor dining at 25 percent capacity on Saturday, January 16, for the first time in eight weeks, and it’s unclear how many will be able to front the cost to meet the latest air quality standards.

“Most restaurants won’t be able to meet these new requirements as they currently stand, so they will be stuck at 25 percent occupancy for the foreseeable future, which as we know is untenable financially,” she says.