Philly’s coronavirus response

‘There is no bar business anyway’: Thanksgiving Eve booze ban disappoints, confuses Philly restaurant owners

Pa. suspended on-site alcohol sales for the pre-holiday party night — but to-go cocktails are allowed.

Cocktails at The Twisted Tail in happier times

Cocktails at The Twisted Tail in happier times

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
layla

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Thanksgiving Eve is anecdotally considered the biggest drinking night of the year. Like with so many other things, 2020 will be different.

With coronavirus cases and hospitalizations rising at a rate officials worry might overwhelm Pennsylvania’s health system, Governor Tom Wolf on Monday released a new set of regulations intended to mitigate COVID spread.

Alongside new statewide limits on event size and a recommendation to just stay home, Health Secretary Rachel Levine announced a one-day suspension of on-site alcohol sales at all restaurants and bars across the commonwealth.

The order, which goes into effect at 5 p.m. Wednesday, was passed down specifically to address the large crowds that typically patronize bars and restaurants the night before Thanksgiving, Gov. Wolf said. To-go cocktails and beer are still allowed.

In Philadelphia, where Mayor Jim Kenney has already enacted stringent mitigation measures, some restaurant owners said the news comes as a blow.

“I think this really illustrates that our lawmakers are so disconnected with our communities as business owners,” said West Philly restaurateur Saba Tedla, who owns Booker’s Restaurant at 51st and Baltimore Avenue.

Alcohol accounts for 30% of the sales there, she said, and the new regulation is forcing her to consider closing for the week.

Booker’s is still offering to-go cocktails, which the restaurant has been serving since it became allowed in the spring. But Tedla is also frustrated by the fact that restaurants just a few miles away in Delaware County have more options than she does.

While indoor dining is temporarily prohibited in Philly through the end of the year, restaurants in other counties around the state can still operate at 50% capacity.

“How is it that Philadelphia can make harsher laws than other counties?” Tedla said. She recently purchased $3,500 worth of material to winterize the outdoor booths Booker’s built on the sidewalk.

By Pa. law, the city is allowed to enact more stringent restrictions than the state. Philly Health Commissioner Tom Farley has cited the denser population and different habits for city dwellers as reasons his shutdown orders have sometimes been different from nearby suburbs — though when he announced last week’s indoor dining ban, he urged surrounding counties to follow suit.

A study published earlier this month in Nature found that indoor activity at restaurants, gyms, cafes, hotels and religious centers were so-called superspreader sites during the spring wave.

To George Reilly of The Twisted Tail in Society Hill, the Thanksgiving Eve alcohol ban is on its own inconsequential — and he’s confused about why it was necessary.

“I don’t really get it, to be honest,” Reilly said, citing the existing statewide requirement that alcohol only be sold alongside food. “There is no bar business anyway right now. You’re coming out for dinner, not for drinks to party and get wasted.”

His restaurant does have space for outdoor dining, which is still allowed in Philly, but the weather is getting colder and colder. Most of his Thanksgiving dinner reservations switched to carry-out when the indoor dining was shut down, Reilly said, and he’lll definitely be offering to-go cocktails and beer with the takeout food.

Avram Hornik, owner of several mostly outside dining establishments, including Morgan’s Pier and Harper’s Garden, said he trusts the guidance of health officials during the pandemic.

“This is such a difficult time for everyone and I think that the state health department and the government have the best intentions,” Hornik said. “So I’m not gonna second guess their judgement on these things.”

Coupled with all the other COVID regulations, Reilly said the Thanksgiving Eve ban once again forced him to consider closing The Twisted Tail for the season, as some other Philly restaurateurs have done.

He described a recent conversation with his staff about the possibility, a much less enthusiastic conversation than the one the group had in the spring.

“In March, I could stand in front of you all and say we will get through this,” Reilly told his team. “This time, I can’t make them that promise.”