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May 28, 2020

Philly officials caution outdoor restaurant dining service could be delayed

City hopes to cement yellow phase plans for June 5, but won't rush before guidelines are set

Government COVID-19
Outdoor Restaurants Philly Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia restaurants may need to wait past June 5 to begin outdoor dining service in the city, despite Pennsylvania's yellow phase guidance allowing for these businesses to reopen. City officials continue to monitor metrics related to COVID-19 and establish yellow phase guidelines.

Philadelphia officials are not yet ready to make a firm commitment to the resumption of outdoor dining service at restaurants by June 5, the date announced Wednesday by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.

The governor's amended guidance for the yellow phase of the COVID-19 reopening plan would permit restaurants across the state to begin outdoor seating, including businesses across Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said Thursday that the city hopes to meet this target, but will not guarantee it at this stage, just over a week away.

“Outdoor dining, done properly in the midst of a pandemic, is extremely complicated,” Kenney said. “It obviously needs to adhere to social distancing guidelines. But we also need to ensure that the public right of way is respected, and that those with disabilities are not hindered. And we need to ensure that outdoor dining protocols are equitable — that they work as well in Juniata and East Oak Lane as they do in Center City.”

The mayor urged businesses not to jump the gun on plans to start serving customers on June 5.

"We are still determining how this will work in Philadelphia. I don’t want our business owners getting ahead of the regulations and preparing for outdoor dining next week," Kenney said "We are not giving the green light to move forward until the guidance is complete, so no restaurant should be announcing plans to launch outdoor dining on June 5. We need you to wait, to ensure that our protocols can be followed.”

Managing director Brian Abernathy emphasized that the restaurant issue is difficult to coordinate in a large city like Philadelphia. 

"Second Street in Old City is a little bit different than Second Street in Harrisburg," Abernathy said. "The density is different. The number of restaurants is different. Our sidewalk widths are different. Making sure people can walk down those sidewalks and remain safe ... and making sure that folks don't get sick matters. We want to make sure we get that right."

Officials plan to release guidance on outdoor dining some time next week, but will continue to monitor key metrics related to COVID-19 in the meantime.

City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said the public needs to be prepared for the possibility that the yellow phase could initially be more restrictive than elsewhere or delayed in Philadelphia.

"The virus is unpredictable. It has plenty of surprises in front of us," Farley said. "I want to be able to get that idea out there in case we have to have that happen. Even as we go through subsequent steps in this process, there may be places and times when we have to backpedal because the virus is starting to cycle up again and we need to prevent that. We're learning as we go."

Farley added that the initial benchmarks set for the reopening plan — about 50 cases per day in Philadelphia over a 14-day-period — seemed too limited to follow.

"I always thought that having a decision based on that one metric was too narrow," Farley said. "We should look at a whole set of metrics. When we're talking about going to yellow here, what you want to achieve in metrics depends on what yellow actually means. Yellow is something that's really pretty narrow. It's just a limited restarting of some activities. It's not a total reopening of what we did before."

While the city remains optimistic about the June 5 target, Kenney said Philadelphia will stand by its public health objectives, even if it means putting certain activities on further hold.

"We need to be realistic with people," Kenney said. "We need to be up front with people about what we believe is in the best interest of the safety of our citizens."

Philadelphia reported 175 additional confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, showing continued declines in daily new cases. The city's total is now 22,150 confirmed cases.

An additional 10 fatalities brought Philadelphia's death toll to 1,258, including 666 nursing home residents.

City hospitals currently are treating 485 patients for COVID-19, while hospitals across Southeastern Pennsylvania are treating 994 people.

Progress continues to move in the right direction, but Kenney urges residents and businesses to recognize the need for careful planning to introduce outdoor dining.

"I understand their desire to get back into the swing of things and get their employees back," Kenney said. "Pay their rent, pay their bills. I totally understand that. It's just that when you're in the public thoroughfare, when you're in the public space, we have to make sure that all of our bases are covered when it comes to accessibility, to safety, and to all medical protocols that are necessary to keep everyone safe — and not to slide back into the red phase. I'm not saying [outdoor dining] is not going to happen. It most likely will happen. We just have to have all of our i's dotted and t's crossed."