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As Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel warned on Tuesday that Tropical Storm Isaias’ worst was yet to come, some local restaurant owners found themselves debating whether to open for outdoor dining that evening.
With high winds and flooding predicted, it might be risky — but after six months of nearly nonexistent revenue, Philly’s restaurateurs were reluctant to close for even one day, losing out on cash they desperately need to get out of the pandemic-induced red.
A Tuesday morning downpour that overflowed waterways and flooded intersections evolved into harsh winds that scattered debris around the city and treated the suburbs even more harshly, flipping cars and downing power lines. Thiel, who also acts as Philly’s director of emergency management, estimated the Schuylkill River would rise to 18 feet by nighttime.
“The storm is not over,” he said at a midday press conference. “The flooding has really just begun.”
In their back-and-forth with the effects of Isaias, restaurant owners got a taste of an issue that will become ever more present as the seasons change. This particular threat to outdoor dining would likely last less than 48 hours, but if indoor dining is still not allowed in Philadelphia this winter, what happens then?
Management at Era, a Brewerytown bar known for its Ethiopian food, still hadn’t decided at 2 p.m. whether to open as planned two hours later.
The pandemic has been a huge struggle, said Roberra Aklilu, whose father owns the Era. Their outdoor dining set-up has space for just 24 people, compared to the usual 60 inside. Some revenue comes in via takeout orders, but it doesn’t compare, he said, especially since people don’t usually buy alcohol to go.
“It’ll only get worse as the seasons pass, and it starts to get colder,” Aklilu said. “It could be snow outside, or rain that freezes overnight. That’s additional time and effort to clear sidewalks, to make sure it’s safe enough for people to walk. It’s only going to get worse.”
Indoor dining is already allowed in the collar counties around Philadelphia, but things are different in the city, Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley has repeatedly said, where density is higher and the sheer number of restaurants makes safety protocols hard to enforce.
The next potential date the city could allow indoor dining is Sept. 1; Farley said he’ll make a decision by Aug. 21.
At Drury Beer Garden in Center City on Tuesday, co-owner George Tsiouris said he didn’t have much choice whether to stay closed — his basement was flooding. His Sansom Street restaurant, the indoor portion of which previously operated as Opa, had recently flooded and been forced to close after the major water main break in 2018.
“Just add it to the continuing issues,” Tsiouris said.
Devil’s Den in Bella Vista is closed on Tuesdays anyway, so owner Erin Wallace didn’t have to make a call about opening one way or the other. But she figured if she had been scheduled to open, she probably would have.
Wallace just can’t risk losing the money right now — not when she’s doing 20% of her usual business, seating 24 people outside a restaurant big enough to fit more than 100.
Since she began outdoor dining service, Wallace only closed once due to weather, she said. There was a rainstorm so bad in June that water leaked through the roof of the kitchen. Anything less intense than that, she tries to wait out.
“We’ve had some scattered showers, and we had some customers whose table was completely covered by an umbrella, and they try to sit it out,” Wallace said. “But it’s not always great for the staff that already had an exhausting day. Nobody wants to wait on a table and have wet shoes. It’s the worst feeling in the world.”
In one rainy night, is she even making enough money to offset the electric bill?
“You look at it like, well, should I open up and make $200 in sales on a Friday,” said Erin Wallace, owner of Bella Vista tavern Devil’s Den, “or do I close and keep all the lights off — which way do I lose less money?”