Morgan's Pier in 2015

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Restaurants have been one of the hardest-hit sectors of the U.S. economy. They may also be among the last businesses allowed to return to normal operations.

That hasn’t stopped industry professionals from thinking toward the future.

One option chefs and restaurant owners have been poring over is utilizing outdoor space to safely expand capacity. The tactic is being deployed in cities and towns across the globe — and thanks to the time of year, it’s also a potential option in Philadelphia.

Whether existing regulations will be relaxed to permit widespread adoption of sidewalk dining is still unclear.

“I have been hearing from many restaurant owners throughout the region that they wish to use their outdoor spaces for physical distancing purposes,” said Ben Fileccia, operations and strategy director for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association. His Philly members specifically “are hoping for easing of restrictions for sidewalk and street parking seating.”

Although some regions of the state are starting to reopen, Gov. Tom Wolf has made clear Southeastern Pa. is not yet at the “yellow” stage. Mayor Jim Kenney said it’s too early to talk about how the city will handle dining.

“I think that we’re a little bit further away from sidewalk dining and restaurant dining,” Kenney said on Wednesday.

Avram Hornik of FCM Hospitality, the company behind Morgan’s Pier, Craft Hall, Harper’s Garden, the Dolphin and Concourse Bar, is not waiting for the city. He drafted an outline with steps restaurants could follow to make it safe for customers and staff when they reopen.

The playbook, which has been making the rounds of industry associations and state government officials, depends heavily on allowing outdoor dining.

Hornik thought out two main ways for how restaurants could serve meals al fresco:

  1. Set up take-out windows and allow customers to pick up their own food to eat at outdoor tables
  2. Offer table service at outdoor tables, with servers and patrons required to wear masks if not at tables.

As it stands, only a fraction of Philly restaurants have outdoor seating areas. The process to get a sidewalk cafe license can take several weeks, and relies on moving applications through a bureaucratic process.

But with current estimates predicting half may never reopen at all, getting back to business as soon as possible may be some operators’ only chance at survival.

Across Pennsylvania, 96% of restaurants laid off or furloughed employees during the lockdown, according to a report by the PRLA. Between March 1 and April 16, restaurants statewide lost $1.8 billion in revenue, the report said.

Harper’s Garden’s outdoor seating area in Center City

Nothing like a fresh breeze to ease your mind

Some benefits of introducing outdoor dining may be psychological.

Located in Headhouse Square, the Twisted Tail already has sidewalk seating. Proprietor George Reilly is currently working on a new design for inside of his bourbon house/juke joint to make room for social distancing.

He plans to make up for some of that lost seating by using outdoor space, which he thinks will appeal to more patrons.

“I just think that the biggest problem when restaurants are able to reopen is going to be the epidemic of fear — rather than the disease,” Reilly said. “If people are able to sit outside with fresh breeze blowing, then I think that will be a much safer environment for people’s minds.

Some other states and countries are preparing preliminary plans to make it easier for restaurants to access outside space.

New York City, which has closed 100 miles of roadway to cars so pedestrians have more room to spread out, said it’s thinking about the option. “There could be advantages to having more [restaurant seating] be outdoors,” NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio said on Monday, according to Eater.

In Melbourne, Fl., the local city council approved small business incentives that let restaurants create or expand outdoor seating and eliminate most code enforcement fines, among other allowances. Across the Atlantic, the capital of Lithuania is transforming itself into “a vast open-air cafe,” per the Guardian.

As the Twisted Tail waits for the word on when Philly restaurants can start reopening, some of its pivots have provided an unexpected bright spot.

Every Wednesday, faithful customers and anyone looking for an in-home escape can tune into Twisted Tail’s Facebook for a cocktail class and live music streams — and it’s become the highlight of proprietor Reilly’s week.

“That’s actually been really fun,” he said. “That’s something I think we will carry on even when we open back up as well.”

Fried chicken in a bag at the Twisted Tail Credit: Danya Henninger

As weather warms, people may gather outside anyway

Not everyone thinks outdoor dining is a good answer to the restaurant problem.

“I don’t think [outdoor seating is] a good solution,” said Krys Johnson, an assistant professor and epidemiologist at Temple, “because what it’s doing is it’s putting our service staff, who already have been in dire straits because of the economic climate, now they’re putting their health at risk.”

Hornik’s reopening plan attempts to address the risks for both staff and customers.

Most paramount in the document is the stipulation that restaurants follow all national and local health guidelines. Plating and cutlery should be disposable, with no touch payment and increased sterilization between parties.

Beyond that, the plan suggests all patrons would have to wear masks when not seated at physically-distanced tables. They would also be required to fill out a “contact tracing log” with their own contact info before being served.

Staff should wear masks and gloves at all times, the plan notes, plus be screened for signs of illness and have temperatures checked at the start of each shift — something in place now at many supermarkets. And those shifts would be staggered, adjusted for decreased capacity, with paid sick leave available for any employee with COVID symptoms or exposure.

Hornik recognizes city leaders are burdened with other issues right now, but said it’s still time to start the conversation about outdoor dining.

“I think the public health officials right now have more important things to do in terms of dealing with people whose lives are really being threatened on a real, day to day basis,” Hornik said.

But as the playbook notes, it’s getting really nice out. “As the weather warms,” the document says, “people will start to gather together regardless of the restrictions and if there is a way to do it safely, that should be permitted.”

Ordinarily, spring brings patrons flocking to Reilly’s outdoor dining area, shaded by big, floppy, red umbrellas over metal tables and chairs. He thinks the spaces will take on a new importance when business restrictions are lifted.

“Now,” Reilly said, “we just have to pray for the nice weather to go along with it.”

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...