Philly City Council wants to keep expanded outdoor dining options through 2021

A block of Sansom Street in Center City is closed to traffic to allow expanded outdoor dining. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A block of Sansom Street in Center City is closed to traffic to allow expanded outdoor dining. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Outdoor dining has provided a lifeline to restaurants hurt by the pandemic and social distancing rules that made packed restaurants and bars a thing of the past.

Eateries that relied on filled seats for income resorted to takeout and delivery options to stay afloat. In June, city officials changed outdoor seating regulations to make it easier for restaurants and bars with kitchens to serve outdoors.

The new rules, set to expire in December, have helped thousands of businesses survive with expanded outdoor seating and more recently, open-air dining rooms on city streets.

But what happens after that when the pandemic is expected to rage into next year?

With this in mind, City Councilmember Allan Domb introduced on Thursday two bills that would extend regulations for expanded outdoor dining another 12 months, through the end of 2021. One bill would authorize sidewalk cafes to continue operating under the coronavirus emergency rules while another would extend the regulation allowing the city’s Streets Department to close the public right-of-way to cars so diners could enjoy expanded al fresco options.

“We still don’t know where COVID-19 will take us,” Domb said. “But these amendments will provide restaurants with some breathing room to keep their doors open and employees working and bringing people back to jobs.”

Shak McClary and her two business partners P.C. Prince and Steve Mahoney kept their business afloat through the pandemic by moving it outside. The Rose Garden, serves wine, wine-based cocktails and savory food offerings in a South Street backyard dining room enclosed by a faux-ivy covered, neon-lit brick wall. McClary doesn’t know what the cold weather will bring — but she is glad businesses like hers will have more outdoor seating options available.

“It’s going to be a tricky winter,” McClary said. “Businesses will definitely have to promote that they have these heated accommodations for people to be able to come and still enjoy themselves.”

Ben Fileccia, director of operation and strategy for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the extension will make the investment restaurants made into setting up outdoor dining worth it.  Last weekend, 11 neighborhood dining districts traded cars for chairs and tables, and eateries across the city have gotten licenses to serve on sidewalks.

“These restaurants have already made significant, significant investments on outdoor seating, and we don’t want that investment to be for naught,” he said. “We want to make sure this investment will carry forward to the coming year.”

The extension comes at a time when the city is considering doubling restaurants to open indoor dining back up to 50% capacity, up from the current 25%. The occupancy boost would be an aid, but half-capacity is not enough to keep restaurants out of the danger zone, Fileccia said.

“50% doesn’t allow restaurants to thrive,” he said.“50% may help restaurants to survive. Indoor dining alone at 50% just can’t sustain most places.”

A report by the lobbying group found that 96% of restaurant operators surveyed reported a steep drop in sales, resulting in an average overall sales decline of 47%.

More than 75% of operators surveyed say they don’t expect sales to return to pre-pandemic levels for six months. Alarmingly for a city that relies on restaurants as a major source of jobs and street life, two-thirds said they expect to close within that time if such conditions continue. For a lot of restaurants, outdoor dining will be “life or death,” Fileccia said.

Domb, who is also a real estate developer and broker, said supporting restaurants also benefits surrounding businesses.

“One of the goals for us is to provide stabilization, not just for the restaurant industry, but for every neighborhood across the city where there are restaurants,” Domb said. ”They are the anchor for all the other stores that will thrive when people go to a restaurant.”

The bills, sponsored by 12 councilmembers, including Domb, are expected to pass the 17-member body with little or no opposition. The city is currently working on a list of recommendations for outdoor dining during the cold weather months.

Fileccia said operators are looking around the globe near and far for ideas, including a design contest in Chicago. There, the city put on a winter outdoor dining design challenge for residents. Officials for the Windy City, known for extremely cold winters, expect to announce the top ideas on Sept. 29.

City officials from several departments are working on winterization recommendations for outdoor dining and have already sought feedback from local business owners. City spokesperson Lauren Cox said there is no solid timeframe for when the guidance will be released, but “the group continues to work diligently on the topic so we can publicize new guidance as soon as possible.”

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