Students cross the street at Temple. Temple, Penn and other regional schools are closing campuses because of coronavirus concerns, making business unpredictable for restaurants near college campuses. Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

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Foot traffic hasn’t slowed much at some of Philly’s popular bars and restaurants, but proprietors say they’re starting to feel the economic squeeze as coronavirus hits the region.

Namely, cancelled parties and events.

Christopher Mullins, Jr., co-owner of his family-run McGillin’s Olde Ale House, said the Center City bar-restaurant hasn’t seen a dip in foot traffic since the novel virus emerged in China at the end of last year.

Since its arrival in the Philly region, though, Mullins says he has lost three big bookings tied to event cancellations and travel restrictions.

This comes as college students are being sent home for the semester. Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration on Thursday enacted a 30-day ban on events with 1,000 or more attendees. Major conferences, like the two that would have brought an estimated 21,000 visitors to town, began calling off the show even earlier. Then there was the St. Patrick’s Day parade, which had planned to carry on with this weekend’s annual march through Center City — until officials persuaded organizers to pull the plug.

Health experts say even a large outbreak shouldn’t affect low-key nightlife in the city — think restaurants where you’re sitting six feet away from others. But business owners are wary this is only the beginning.

“We’re talking to two other groups about their parties and they’re related to the conventions in town, a couple conferences and an alumni event,” Mullins said.

In Northeast Philly, Moonstruck co-owner Claire Dilullo said the Italian restaurant’s foot traffic and regular customers have also continued to stream into the space. Like McGillin’s, however, the hits are coming from larger events.

“We do banquets and parties and some of the ones that are related to hospitals, two of them have cancelled on us,” Dilullo told Billy Penn. “I don’t know what’s in the future.”

College-area businesses may be hit hard by student exodus

Philadelphia announced its first coronavirus case on Tuesday. As of Thursday, 16 total Pa. residents have tested positive. New Jersey has reported 23 cases with one fatality, and Delaware announced its first positive case as well.

Colleges and universities did not pull out as quickly as some event organizers. By, Wednesday, however, several regional schools began cancelling classes and sending students home.

The early tide could pose an economic threat for local establishments that rely on the semester-driven business.

College students from three nearby campuses make up a healthy chunk of Sabrina’s clientele in University City. Reached for comment Wednesday, a manager said the restaurant has yet to experience any change in business. That evening, Penn announced it was moving the rest of the semester online and asked students to move off campus by March 15.

The manager, who asked to remain anonymous, said Sabrina’s is a neighborhood restaurant and hopes the non-student traffic will remain steady.

“We’re also taking proper protocols with sanitation and hand soap, and it’s visible so people know,” the manager said.

Fast-casual restaurant chain Blaze Pizza has locations on Temple’s campus and in University City.

With coronavirus caution in mind, Blaze cancelled its biggest sales and marketing day, Pi Day. The annual event would’ve brought huge crowds to locations nationwide this Saturday, said Melissa Elwood, assistant manager at the Temple location.

“We usually have a line wrapped around the building,” Elwood said. The restaurant sells pies for a discounted $3.14 and makes between $6k to $7k that day, compared to about $4k on an average day.

Blaze’s clientele is primarily students and staff, and many Blaze employees are students, too, so they’ll be going home along with the rest of the campus population.

“We’re unsure of how sales are going to be, but we’re expecting a pretty big decline,” Elwood said.

Coronavirus ‘shouldn’t affect date night’

Should people be concerned about even going out to eat? Health experts say you can relax a bit.

Dr. Krys Johnson, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Temple University, is familiar with stateside viral outbreaks. She was one of four infectious disease fellows at the epicenter of the Zika virus outbreak in Florida.

Johnson said the coronavirus pandemic “shouldn’t affect date night” restaurant outings in the city.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control recommends avoiding large crowds (i.e. “social distancing”), regular hand washing and and using hand sanitizer that’s at least 60% alcohol.

“In restaurant settings, you’re six feet or more away from people that you’re not going to have close contact with anyway,” she said.

She recommended avoiding uncooked foods like salads and fruit while eating out, since coronavirus can be killed by heat above 160 degrees fahrenheit.

Johnson also advises not to share utensils or food, move away from people who are coughing, avoid buffets and avoid large dinner parties where attendees can’t maintain a person-to-person distance of at least six feet.

Most of all, said Johnson, “I really want people to feel empowered to take care of their own health.”

Hiring freezes and other hospitality disaster plans

Moonstruck hasn’t developed a plan in the event business slows dramatically because of blanket quarantines or changes in consumer behavior. “It’s a concern,” Dilullo said.

But McGillin’s will probably freeze hiring this month in the event of a business decline, Mullins said.

“It’s hard to come up with a contingency plan on something you’ve never experienced,” he said. “We’re responsible to our employees and our customers and we want to make sure we do the right thing but we don’t quite know what that means yet.”

Even amid uncertainty, the owner is confident in his restaurant’s resilience.

Said Mullins: “We’re extremely concerned but we survived prohibition and that went on for over a decade. We’ll survive this.”

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Layla A. Jones

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...