‘Stuck again’: Philly’s restaurant owners scramble to respond to indoor dining delay

Outdoor dining in Philly amid the coronavirus pandemic

Dining in Philadelphia will remain outdoor seating only for now. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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In January, Sam Mink, the owner of Center City seafood restaurant Oyster House, renovated his restaurant for the first time in a decade, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to gut its kitchen, repaint its walls and refinish its floors. Two months later the restaurant closed its doors because of the pandemic. No customer has dined inside since.

“It is difficult to see this beautiful place empty,” Mink said. “But what is more challenging is not having that one-on-one guest interaction.”

Finances are another challenge: Oyster House has been offering patio dining since June 12, but it only has space for eight people on its small sidewalk space on Sansom Street, compared to 120 seats inside. The restaurant received the federal PPP loan in April, but has spent most of it already to comply with the loan’s original requirements.

So, when Philadelphia officials announced a few weeks ago that dine-in service could likely resume Friday, July 3, Mink was excited. He drafted a new, limited menu, ordered cleaning supplies and plexiglass barriers to protect diners, and reached out to laid-off employees about returning to work, with plans to grow the staff from four to 20.

Sam Mink
Sam Mink is the owner of the Oyster House in Center City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

But by the end of last week, Mink had begun to grow nervous about exploding coronavirus infection rates in southern and western states. Then, on Tuesday, Philadelphia officials made the choice for him, and the rest of the city’s restaurateurs: in-person dining would likely be banned until at least August.

“Part of me is devastated. We want to serve people,” Mink said. “Unfortunately now is not the right time. We understand. We have to wait.”

‘Stuck again’

Philadelphia officials announced the delay in indoor dining as case counts in the city began to rise, ending a weeks-long decline.

Recently, the city has been averaging about 100 new cases a day — not meeting the target set of 80 new cases per day to allow activities like indoor dining to resume.

At a press conference Tuesday, officials said indoor dining, along with gyms and fitness centers, would likely remain closed until at least Aug. 1.

By Friday, every county in Pennsylvania will technically be in the “green” phase of reopening, which allows for indoor dining at 50% capacity, though local officials are allowed to impose more restrictive regulations. On Thursday Allegheny County officials, alarmed at increasing coronavirus cases, shut-down in-person activity at bars, restaurants, and casinos there for a week. New Jersey also delayed restarting indoor dining this week.

“I want businesses to reopen as much as anybody,” Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Tuesday. “At the same time, I think officials that allowed restaurants and bars to open up in Florida and Texas are regretting it right now, and I don’t want us to be there in the future.”

Michael Schulson, a Philadelphia restaurateur with 10 establishments in the city, said he was skeptical officials were thinking much about restaurant owners.

“Unfortunately, I think there is a lack of people involved who have a business background helping to be involved in this process. It seems as if the process is being done by people in a bubble,” Schulson said.

Schulson said four of his restaurants — Independence Beer Garden, Double Knot, Sampan and Via Locusta — have been open for outdoor dining, and were preparing to offer indoor dining Friday.

“We saw that cases were going up [last week], why not say it then?” Schulson said. “That’s kind of the frustration: they just kind of say, ‘You know what, alright, we are not doing it now,’ and that is the same week we are supposed to do it. That doesn’t give people much time to pivot.”

Another prominent Philadelphia restaurant owner, Marc Vetri, was more direct in his criticism.

“This administration is a joke,” Vetri wrote on Twitter.

For Youma Ba, the indoor dining delay was painful and surprising. She was preparing the West Philadelphia African restaurant she manages, Kilimanjaro, to begin offering dine-in service for the first time since March until a WHYY reporter told her the news Wednesday morning.

“That means we are stuck again,” she responded.

Normally, Ba said, Kilimanjaro is packed in the spring and summer with students and their families, as well as people attending conferences or events at nearby universities. It’s not set up for outdoor dining, and she was excited to see her customers again for the first time in months. She was also excited about making some badly needed cash. She’s been late on rent every month since April.

“The pandemic is scary now, and getting to another month, and not knowing when the students come back too,” Ba said. “We just have to pray to God to change the situation soon.”

Other restaurant owners had already decided not to immediately restart indoor dining due to coronavirus concerns.

“I was glad to hear [about the delay] because then we would be playing the same rules,” said Peter Hwang, owner of the South Philly Korean gastropub SouthGate.

‘I wasn’t sure that I was ready’

Servers, bartenders, chefs and other restaurant workers had mixed feelings about the indoor dining delay.

Stephen Shellenberger was disappointed by the news that he wouldn’t be waiting tables inside Oyster House anytime soon. He said he thinks he has already been exposed to the coronavirus.

“My feeling of risk is probably lower,” Shellenberger said. “But I understand other people wouldn’t feel safe.”

Shellenberger has been getting by comfortably on unemployment, but he hopes to pick up some outside shifts soon. He feels called to the work, despite the greater risks servers face during the pandemic.

“It’s like working in Chernobyl,” Shellenberger said. “People had to shut down the reactor even though they knew it was risky … They had a sense of duty. We feed people.”

For Gregg Seiger, the indoor dining delay came as a relief. Seiger, a Fairmont resident who has worked as a chef in the city for about 20 years, said he has received multiple offers in the last two weeks to return to the kitchen at restaurants gearing up to resume indoor dining. He hadn’t yet accepted any of them.

“I just wasn’t sure that I was ready,” Seiger said. “What does it mean to put eight knuckleheads in the kitchen? Something negative could come out of that.”

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