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As the omicron-driven COVID-19 surge begins forcing Philadelphia restaurants to temporarily close, food service workers are once again turning to crowdfunding for help.
Staff at Lunar Inn in Port Richmond and Sally in Fitler Square both launched GoFundMe campaigns last week, seeking donations to make up for wages lost while their places of employment are shuttered.
Over the past few weeks, several Philly restaurants have shut down because of COVID, in many cases due to a spike in infections among staff. Places that have recently taken breaks range from bars to cafes to sit-down restaurants, including Khyber Pass Pub, Jose Pistola’s, Wm. Mulherin’s Sons, Rival Bros. Coffee, and Middle Child Clubhouse.
“We’ve never done a crowdfunding campaign before, and I have mixed feelings about them,” said Lunar Inn co-owner Emily Kovach, who organized the GoFundMe for her team
The Lunar Inn fundraiser has a goal of $5,000, and the Sally relief fund is seeking to raise $13,000. Each page describes plans to distribute money raised among servers, bartenders, cooks, and other hourly workers.
Since the food service industry generally offers little paid time off — if any at all — community-generated donations are one of the few ways stafers can mitigate financial disaster when they are unable to work. Last year, when restaurants in Philly were forced to cease operations, many establishments set up crowdfunding campaigns.
“I think it’s okay to ask for a little bit of help sometimes,” Kovach said. “And of all of those times, this one hurts double.”
The rash of unexpected closures comes at what would normally be a peak season for the restaurant business, when holiday crowds, generous tips, and special events prove particularly lucrative for restaurant staff and owners alike.
For many workers, the holiday boom is a guard for the much slower period that typically follows. “It feels cosmically unjust,” Kovach explained. “If this surge were to happen in mid-January, people would have been like ‘OK, that’s fine.’ ”
The sudden leap in COVID rates caught many off-guard. After a relatively stable six months after the city lifted indoor dining restrictions in June, Philly restaurants and bars are experiencing whiplash. As the virus spreads, people have canceled holiday dinners, and are rethinking New Years parties, and other planned indoor events.
“Every time we think we’ve made it through this thing, it gets slippery again,” said Kovach. “We haven’t had a chance to breathe a real sigh of relief. It’s hard to make great long term decisions when you’re in that week-to-week survival mode.”
Philly’s omicron surge comes just as bars and restaurants are gearing up to enforce a new citywide mandate. As of Jan. 3, all patrons must show proof of vaccination to dine indoors.
On top of that, maintaining outdoor dining areas is about to become harder in many parts of the city. Unless they’re inside certain zones defined by City Council, the easy permit process for streeteries that allowed many restaurants to survive the first year of the pandemic is set to expire on Dec. 31.
For Kovach and other local restaurant owners blindsided by the recent spike, it’s hard to put a firm timeline on reopening. The Lunar Inn will keep its bottle shop open and allow takeout this week, but otherwise remain closed indoors until Jan. 4 — that is, assuming things don’t get worse thanks to omicron.
“Making plans feels hard right now,” Kovach said. “We’re trying to take it one week at a time.”