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September 30, 2021

Philly may make the outdoor dining setups prompted by COVID-19 permanent fixtures

New legislation would allowed hundreds of businesses to maintain sidewalk cafés and streeteries into the future

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Outdoor Dining Philly Legislation Courtesy/Dane Lamontia

Sidewalk cafés and streeteries have become a fixture of life in Philadelphia during the coronavirus pandemic. Legislation introduced in City Council would make these outdoor dining options permanent for city businesses who obtain licenses and follow regulations.

The widespread adoption of outdoor seating at Philadelphia restaurants has been among the most popular and effective adjustments made by the food service industry during the coronavirus pandemic.

Such arrangements could be here to stay even after the pandemic ends.

A pair of bills sponsored by City Councilmember Allan Domb, with support from six co-sponsors, aim to permanently establish the pandemic regulations that allowed for businesses to open sidewalk cafés, streeteries and parking lot tables beginning in June 2020.

The emergency licenses for these outdoor dining arrangements are set to expire at the end of 2021, but the city councilmembers hope to remove that concern for Philadelphia businesses going forward.

"Restaurants of all sizes across the city utilized this opportunity and because of it, they were able to keep their doors open and employees working — all while continuing to overcome the challenges with maintaining a safe and healthy environment," Domb said.

The proposed legislation was developed with input from the Streets Department, the Department of Licenses & Inspections, the Commerce Department and the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association. Disability advocates, civic associations and business improvement districts across Philadelphia also took part in shaping the regulations.

Mayor Jim Kenney's office doesn't comment on pending legislation at this stage and is still reviewing the bills as operational conversations remain ongoing, spokesperson Kevin Lessard said.

More than 750 restaurants in Philadelphia have taken advantage of outdoor dining regulations during the pandemic, including rotating street closures that have enabled business districts to take part in dedicated events.

Kenney strongly envisions a permanent version of the outdoor dining initiative, but believes there must be limitations on structures in the interest of public safety and accessibility, Lessard said.

"The administration hopes to work with City Council, local business owners and residents this fall to solidify the details regarding a program that can be implemented in a safe, responsible and equitable way," Lessard said.

A key feature of both bills is standardizing the application and approval process for businesses across Philadelphia neighborhoods and providing year-long licenses that operate under guidelines enforced by the Streets Department and L&I.

Enforcement related to streetery structures and their use by businesses would continue to be handled by L&I, while the Streets Department would continue to enforce all issues related to streetery placement and other right of way issues, including traffic flow, transit needs and public safety.

The compliance focus for streeteries and sidewalk cafés will be ensuring they meet the city's building code, fire code and the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Under the proposed bills, all businesses that wish to renew their licenses beyond 2021 will be required to publicly post their applications for a sidewalk café or streetery for at least 10 days in order to obtain a license. This is intended to give residents, neighborhood organizations and councilmembers a chance to relay concerns to the Streets Department and L&I before any decision is made.

Enforcement of violations will be handled using a fine system, though businesses that repeatedly fail to correct problems may have their structures removed and licenses revoked. Structures that are found to be in poor condition, or that aren't being used for their intended purposes, will be subject to removal by the city.

Streetery licenses, in particular, will be required to follow a number of public safety regulations under the proposed bills:

•Streeteries would be prohibited in travel and bike lanes.
•Safety barriers specified by regulation would be required to protect streetery seating.
•12 feet of traffic lane clearance would be required for all transit and emergency vehicles
•The number of seats in a streetery would be limited to no more than the total number of indoor dining seats.
•Pedestrian access to transit stops and curb-cut street crossing areas must be preserved.
•All streetery structures would need to be removable within 48 hours notice.
•Streeteries would not be allowed to cover manholes.
•A 10-foot distance from the crosswalk and curb-cut would be required to ensure cars can clearly see pedestrians.

For sidewalk cafés, the bills specify regulations related to the especially busy areas of Center City on Walnut and Chestnut streets from Broad to 18th streets. In these areas, sidewalk cafes are not permitted unless they directly abut a restaurant where more than 25% of the interior space is used for seating.

All sidewalk cafés in Philadelphia would only be permitted to operate between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. from Sunday through Thursday, and between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

The bills' other co-sponsors are are councilmembers Cherelle Parker, Kenyatta Johnson, Bobby Henon, Katherine Gilmore Richardson, Derek Green and Kendra Brooks.

"This legislation will allow our neighborhood restaurants to maximize the use of outdoor space to enhance their bottom lines and compete in an already competitive market while also providing a unique and quality dining experience to Philadelphians and visitors," Parker said.

The proposals come after the city reinstated its indoor mask mandate for all businesses in August, providing an exception for businesses that choose to require proof of vaccination for entry. At restaurants without vaccine requirements, masks are still required among all staff and patrons, except when guests are seated to eat.

Ben Fileccia, director of operations and strategy for the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, praised the outdoor dining bills and noted that the pandemic remains a major challenge for businesses.

"Councilmember Domb and his office have worked closely with PRLA, restaurants and bars throughout the city, and dozens of other stakeholders like our public utility companies to craft comprehensive legislation that provides a practical solution to continuing Philadelphia's outdoor dining scene," Fileccia said. "Studies have shown that the delta variant has dampened indoor dining for many and has changed consumer behavior, so permitting streeteries to continue in Philadelphia will be massively helpful to the industry on its path to full recovery."

Both bills will need to be considered by councilmembers in committee and will be evaluated in the months ahead.