Of Course It’s Too Soon for Indoor Dining

Coronavirus spreads more easily when people gather in close quarters, especially indoors, without masks — which is a very unfortunate predicament for restaurant owners.


Fiorella, pictured here before the pandemic shutdowns, no longer has a date for reopening its dining room. | Photo by Steve Legato

July 3rd was going to be a big day for Philly restaurants. That was the date, chosen (tentatively) by city officials, that restaurants would be allowed to reopen their dining rooms at a limited capacity. For many restaurant owners, it meant a chance at survival. It meant stability, a step toward normalcy.

Now, July 3rd is just another day in Covid Land, as meaningless as the rest of them. The city decided yesterday that Philly wasn’t ready for indoor dining just yet — because it isn’t. Because COVID-19 case numbers are growing again. On June 18th, the city released its Reopening with Care plan, an official strategy for moving Philly into the third phase — the green phase — of Pennsylvania’s three-phase reopening. It noted that as of June 15th, the city was averaging around 100 confirmed coronavirus cases per day, and that we’d need to dip below 80 cases per day to fully enter a version of the green phase that included activities like indoor dining. Yesterday, the city recorded 142 new cases. Face masks are mandatory again.

To date, more than 121,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 in the past four months. More than 1,600 of those deaths happened right here in Philadelphia. We know that the virus spreads more easily when people gather in close quarters, especially indoors, without masks — which is very unfortunate for restaurant owners who make a living by getting people to gather indoors without masks.

So of course we shouldn’t reopen dining rooms just yet. Not when we can’t handle doing outdoor dining the right way. Not when we know that the states (Florida, Texas, Arizona and California) that opened early are closing up again because of spikes in case counts. Not when a fellow Philly Mag reporter tells me that out in the suburbs, there are bars helmed by bartenders coughing into their hands without washing them. Bars that have given up on face masks completely. Bars that aren’t enforcing any social distancing procedures at all.

When actual human lives are at stake, when death counts are this high, when the city health commissioner, Thomas Farley, says publicly that he’s concerned about the rising case counts — about an impending resurgence — it seems obvious that we should hold off on dining indoors for at least another month.

Of course, that’s a frustrating, scary proposition for so many restaurant owners in the city. There are too many restaurants that won’t last another month in these conditions. Without any sort of substantial, restaurant-specific government bailout, too many restaurants in America won’t make it to next week. What we’re seeing — live, in front of our eyes — are the immediate effects of a federal government that failed to support one of the largest workforces in the country. There’s desperation in the air.

Marc Vetri took to Twitter last night to voice his disappointment in the decision to keep dining rooms closed, which garnered some criticism online, particularly over this (now-deleted) tweet:

“We were told that once we hit these numbers, once we hit all these targets [the government] laid out for us, we could reopen,” Vetri says today when I reach him by phone. “It’s just hard. There just isn’t anybody telling us what exactly needs to happen for us to reopen.”

The mixed messaging between the state and local governments is frustrating for business owners, no doubt. But in a public health crisis, public health experts should be calling the shots. Philly’s public health experts came up with specific targets: The average tally of coronavirus cases had to dip below 80 per day, and there needed to be a “continued decrease for four weeks after Yellow.” We haven’t yet seen the seven-day moving average drop below 80 cases per day, and we’ve seen an uptick in cases in the weeks since the city went yellow. Some Philadelphians seem to have given up the fight against COVID-19 completely. We’re simply not ready.

“I want to open safely, do it under all the proper guidelines,” says Vetri. “I’ve been listening to the health experts. I’m not the ‘Fuck this pandemic’ guy people are making me out to be. [Officials] said last week that we can open our dining rooms. All these restaurants bought food, hired staff, trained them, for what? If we’re never going to reopen, they should just say that, so we can plan accordingly.”