Some Philadelphia businesses offer outdoor dining despite warnings from officials

Monday, June 8, 2020
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Some businesses in Philadelphia offered outdoor dining early despite warnings from officials.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- As the sun set in Philadelphia Sunday, some residents set out on a stroll in Old City.

The evening was quiet after a weekend of peaceful demonstrations following the killing of George Floyd, and a curfew now lifted following unrelated looting and destruction.

Among those taking in the sights was Charles Sloan El Lancaster and his family from Merchantville, New Jersey.

"We just came out here, we saw everything was open so we sat down and started enjoying ourselves," he said.

He and his family were unaware that their outdoor dining experience isn't technically allowed.

"I don't see why it wouldn't be open because we're not hurting anybody. We're all to ourselves," El Lancaster expressed.

Though Philadelphia, along with other counties in southeastern Pennsylvania moved into the "yellow phase" on Friday, which allows for outdoor dining among other activities, the city put a hold on meals al fresco at least another week.

That's not sitting well with a number of restaurant owners who moved forward with plans as originally scheduled.

"It's not like we're being defiant but we're getting mixed messages as far as are we allowed to reopen today, tomorrow. The governor says one thing, the mayor says another. We're a new business, we're just trying to survive," said Bekir Gunaydin owner of Oh Brother on Market Street.

The restaurant is one of several with outdoor seating that was clearly in high demand.

"We're waiting for that yellow phase to come," said Jeff Bergman of Big A** Slices.

Owners, like Bergman, aware of the risks of possibly being shut down, are taking extra precautions to keep the peace.

Owners also making the argument that many spent a lot of money expecting to provide outdoor dining this weekend, then later finding out they couldn't.

"We let somebody sit there for 15 minutes and then we move them along. They have to have masks. All of our staff has to have masks. We're wiping the tables in between," Bergman said.

"We've been shut down for about three months now," said Branzino owner and chef, Luan Tota. "Yeah, I was excited to start outdoor dining."

"(Friday), I heard that the mayor pulled the plug on us, saying that we were going to outdoor dining on the 12th and I was frustrated, to say the least," said Tota.

Tota says enough was enough. He spent his last $5,000 in savings, purchasing all the food for Friday's limited service.

"If the mayor wants to cut me a check for $5,000, you know, I'll be glad to maybe shut the doors and reopen back on the 12th," said Tota.

At Bodega Bar and Kitchen, co-owner Steve Vasiliadis also rolled the dice.

Bodega's grand opening was in January. Like many, it's been struggling to stay afloat amid the COVID-19 pandemic and recent unrest.

"I'm not doing it to prove a point, I'm simply doing it because it's the right thing to do," said Vasiliadis.

Owners are in solidarity in their efforts to survive, while also trying to comply.

"Safety is one thing and the other thing is what do we do, our hands are tied behind our back?" asked Gunaydin.

A city spokesperson released this statement to Action News, saying those businesses in violation could be shut down:

"Restaurants who choose to flout the City's directive on outdoor dining are acting irresponsibly and putting the public health at risk. We have not yet issued guidance on how outdoor dining can and should be done safely in Philadelphia-which will differ in some ways from general guidance provided by the state. If the City receives reports of restaurants violating our current order, which does not allow outdoor dining at this time, the Department of Public Health will take enforcement actions, starting with a cease operations order.

As far as life in the city moving forward post unrest, employees with access cards can go back to work starting Monday.

Action News has also learned that JFK Boulevard has reopened to traffic.