Philly City Council mulls extending outdoor dining, street closing regs through 2021

(Image via The Philadelphia Tribune)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — The city’s outdoor dining regulations put in place in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic could get extended another year.

A pair of bills introduced in Philadelphia City Council on Thursday would continue to allow eateries to offer outdoor seating in nearly every neighborhood and permit the Philadelphia Streets Department to provide temporary street closures through December 2021.

The current regulations are set to expire at the end of this year.

At-large Council member Allan Domb, the main sponsor of the bills, said in a statement that the legislation would help provide stabilization for the restaurant industry during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“We still don’t know where COVID-19 will take us and this amendment provides restaurants with breathing room to keep their doors open and employees working,” Domb said. “City government needs to continue to be flexible in this climate and respond to the constantly changing dynamics associated with the pandemic.”

The bills now go to a council committee for a hearing, which has yet to be scheduled.

Legislators initially passed the outdoor dining regulations in June as the city began allowing eateries to reopen and offer outside seating following shutdowns caused by the pandemic in March. The regulations fast-tracked the application process for businesses to set up outside seating options that lacked a permit, which previously required approval from City Council.

Many restaurants began offering al fresco seating throughout the city on sidewalks as well as curbside parking spaces, the latter of which the city has dubbed a “streetery.” Temporary street closures for restaurant seating could extend up to 48 hours.

Since June, the city has approved 657 sidewalk cafes and streeteries, and issued 44 temporary-use permits for businesses to expand onto private properties, such as a parking lot, said Kenney administration spokeswoman Lauren Cox in an email. That was on top of the more than 250 restaurants that had existing sidewalk cafe licenses before the regulations were expanded.

During the same time period, the city approved permits to close down streets for outdoor dining in more than a dozen areas, many of which included multiple streets, Cox said. Some groups have applied for a permit and received approval multiple times.

The resumption of indoor dining in Philadelphia began earlier this month, but with significantly reduced capacity and other restrictions. The restaurant industry has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, which has caused significant layoffs and closures.

As pharmaceutical companies rush to find a vaccine for COVID-19, the nation’s top infectious disease expert has said life was not expected to go back to how it was before the pandemic until late 2021, according to CNN.

“If you’re talking about getting back to a degree of normality which resembles where we were prior to COVID, it’s going to be well into 2021, maybe even towards the end of 2021,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said earlier this month, according to CNN.

The proposal to extend the outdoor dining regulations and street closures drew support from the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association and Center City District.

“As COVID-19 continues to exist in the community — the hospitality industry is still not able to operate at normal capacity due to mitigation efforts,” John Longstreet, president of the restaurant and lodging association, said in a news release.

“It is more important than ever to give restaurants the opportunity to be creative with the use of outdoor space — even during the colder months while we exist within this ‘new normal’ for the foreseeable future.”

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.