Here’s to the Restaurants Refusing to Reopen Their Dining Rooms
We salute you.
On Tuesday, dining rooms were officially allowed to reopen in Philadelphia at a quarter of their capacity. It was a momentous day in the very literal sense of the word. We’ve seen the evidence — how reopening dining rooms has led to spikes in coronavirus cases. We’ve read all about the health risk (for both workers and guests), the uncertainty, the gamble of it all. But because the federal government continues to ignore and fail one of the largest workforces in the country, because restaurants are now at risk of extinction, we’re putting our literal lives into the hands of owners whose businesses depend on the maskless.
In New York City, there are strict guidelines. According to Grub Street, “restaurants that do reopen will have to follow rules including temperature checks for all guests, a requirement that one member of every party leaves information for contact tracing, and keep tables six feet apart and ensure guests wear masks whenever they’re not at their table. All restaurants will also have to close at midnight, follow air filtration requirements, and won’t be allowed to offer bar service (i.e., ordering your daiquiri at the bar). Cuomo also says they’ll beef up enforcement, with the state expanding the SLA and State Police Task Force and the city providing 400 code-enforcement inspectors.”
In Philly, we’ve got the six-foot rule. We’ve got something about digital menus and sneeze guards and sharing condiments (?). No mention of temperature checks, though; no contact tracing requirements — obvious as it is to have them. The city health department tells me “the Office of Food Protection is not currently planning to expand beyond their existing staff allotment. There were some open positions due to promotions and retirements prior to the pandemic, and we still hope to fill them, but nothing beyond that.”
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Marc Vetri opened his restaurants with a full head of steam. On Instagram, he wrote about how bittersweet it was to reopen Vetri Cucina. How they’re decidedly “not choosing between two very important things, the continuation of our business or our team’s health, we can do both …”
Vernick reopened. Laurel reopened. Marcie Turney and Val Safran reopened their restaurants in Midtown Village. The Schulson Collective reopened, too. Joe and Angela Cicala posted a series of Instagram stories highlighting all the measures they put in place at Cicala to help prevent transmission: air purifiers, face shields, touch-free menus, hand sanitizer bottles at every door. The new normal if you can’t bear to eat takeout for a few more months. The new normal if you want to breathe 25 percent more life into restaurants you don’t want to see disappear.
So, now we wait to see what comes of it.
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Last night, I thought my social media feeds would be filled with restaurants showcasing their newly reopened dining rooms, all spick-and-span and ready to serve. But it wasn’t. Zahav, Laser Wolf, the CookNSolo dining rooms — they’re all still closed. Same with Cheu and Bing Bing. Same with Friday Saturday Sunday, and Good King Tavern, and Fishtown Social, and so many other restaurants sticking with outdoor dining and takeout till things get a little more dire. Which they will.
“Our approach has always been to create a happy and safe space for all,” Good King Tavern owner Chloe Grigri tells me. “Over the last six months, we have done our best to monitor, evaluate and proceed with caution for our team and our guests. This is no different. We are taking steps to prepare for indoor dining, which is our inevitable reality if we want to survive the winter, but the air is still warm, the sun still shining. Everyday brings with it a new sort of struggle, so for now, we are enjoying whatever small, safe success we can, outside.”
The “inevitability” of this is the most tragic part, I think. The fact is, reopening dining rooms isn’t so much a business decision as it is a survival mechanism. And turning away money right now — even from a measly 25 percent of your normal dining capacity — means narrowing your chances for survival. Not reopening in times like these takes a certain kind of bravery and trust. Trust that things will get better. Trust in the diners to come back. Trust in the process, whatever it may be. It’s no small sacrifice to stay closed right now. So for that, I, we, salute you.
Later this month, on September 21st, Governor Wolf will allow Pennsylvania restaurants to increase their indoor dining capacity from 25 percent to 50 percent. Philly will probably trail behind by a month or so (as is tradition at this point), but 50 percent is what will likely get our restaurants through winter. According to Eater Philly, “Restaurants that plan to go up to 50 percent on September 21 must commit to following all Pennsylvania public health safety guidelines by completing an online self-certification process. Once a restaurant self-certifies, it will show up in a searchable ‘Open & Certified Pennsylvania’ online database. The idea is that potential customers can check the database to make sure a restaurant has pledged to follow safety guidelines.”
So, soon, we’ll be putting our lives into the hands of restaurant owners who will operate their at-risk businesses in between the tension of trying to make enough money to survive a global pandemic and trying to follow safety guidelines that prevent them from making money.
But for now, we wait.