Working the outdoor seating settings before Philly goes to ‘yellow’

Philly restaurants prepare for dining al fresco as the state moves towards its next phase in the time of COVID-19.

When Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf released an update to the state’s reopening guidelines on Wednesday, one thing that caught Philadelphia-area restaurant and bar owners’ eye was that outdoor dining would be allowed in counties in the “yellow” phase.

Restrictions such as there being at least 6 feet between tables, that all customers must sit at tables and wear masks whenever not seated, and lots of tape to mark the occasions of separation would be necessary, but, hey, yellow meant outdoor dining, too, right?

It didn’t matter that on Thursday, May 28, Mayor Jim Kenney appeared during a Zoom press conference to warn local restaurateurs to slow their roll when it comes to taking reservations starting June 5. This after Kenney signed an order, on Tuesday, allowing food trucks (shut down since late March) to reopen and restaurants to permit people to walk in and order.

“No restaurants should be announcing plans to launch outdoor dining on June 5,” Kenney said. “We need you to wait to ensure that our protocols can be followed.” The protocol involves making sure that all matters of opening outdoors are equitable – for Center City and the Philly waterfront, as well as North Philly and beyond. It also puts into play the possibility that Philly might not hit the ‘yellow’ phase marker come June 5 – not if we keep having parties such as the one at 28th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue where no masks and no social distancing was observed among its 200 closely quartered participants.

Fairness and safety, then, is the name of the game here, where Kenney is concerned.

Longtime Philadelphia restaurateur Avram Hornik has decided to look to the positive – to Wolf’s more-than-likely, hopeful plunge into ‘yellow’ for Philly come next week – so-much-so that outdoor seating at his Harper’s Garden in Rittenhouse and Morgan’s Pier on the Delaware River, are taking reservations now, for seating starting on June 5.

Like everyone else I have spoken to within the Philly restaurant industry, Hornik estimates that his food and bar businesses have been off 90-95% since the strike and shuttering on COVID-19. “Rosie’s Taco Bar has been open the entire time, doing take-out – so food sales for us are pretty similar to what they were pre-pandemic, but there have been no alcohol sales,” said Hornik. “Morgan’s Pier was opened for take-out last week when curbside cocktails finally got legalized.”

For the last six weeks, Hornik has been devising socially distanced floor plans for all of his rooms, but, in particular, focused on his outdoor spaces as most of the literature out there said that would happen sooner than indoor spaces – a must, considering he would have had 500 people in his summer seasonal employ if not for the pandemic (they had 250 employees in March when the coronavirus shot every restaurant down and moved to 25 workers until the present). “Morgan’s Pier, Harper’s Garden, and Rosie’s which has a large summer café are our current focus,” he said. “We’ll be opening a week from today, for outdoor seating.”

Hornik is firmly aware that it is the “virus that dictates the timetable, and not us.” He knows that his venues could be open for two weeks then have to shut down again if Philadelphia counties slide back to ‘red.’ Avram’s businesses, then, will “remain flexible,” and “optimistic” with around 200 people in his employee for his outdoor locations.

Morgan’s Pier is 16,000 (“and change”) in terms of square footage and will be allowed to house 175 people per the Government’s requirements (12 people per 1,000 square feet, or the lowest portion of your legal occupancy). Harper’s Garden will wind up with approximately 50 seats as it will use Plexiglas dividers used within its 7,500 square feet (that is for its indoors and outdoors) with 80 people as its new ‘yellow’ norm. “Six feet distance between tables and Plexiglas dividers between some of the tables…. In terms of an intimacy level and the drive to be out-and-about, people’s need and desire for normalcy, to see their neighbors and friends, will ultimately override that of any inconveniences that the new restrictions will require. Having to wear masks, not being able to get up from the table without masks, contact tracing logs – they’ll be inconvenient but you’ll be able to dine out again. I think people are more excited by that than they are bogged down but the hassles.”

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