(Photo via facebook.com/sojournphilly)
Philadelphia is slowly reopening after a year of mandated business closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But restaurant owners without the means to make mandated updates have been put at a disadvantage.
On Feb. 9, local restaurants were provided the opportunity to increase their dine-in capacity from 25% occupancy to 50% occupancy, if their application to do so was approved. Restaurants had to meet certain HVAC standards, including having HVAC systems in their venues that could provide a minimum of 15 air exchanges per hour indoors and exhaust vents at a minimum of six feet from tables, chairs and other items.
Qamara Edwards is the director of business and events for Sojourn Philly, a local restaurant group that owns Jet Wine Bar, Rex 1516 and Cafe Ynez, as well as the president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association’s (PRLA) local chapter. She takes exception to the protocols city government put in place around restaurant occupancy, arguing that the standard set is too high for many owners to meet. That’s based on what she’s hearing from members of PRLA, a large number of whom are women or people of color running restaurants and hotels of differing sizes.
Edwards told Technical.ly she does not believe that city officials intentionally overlooked barriers that diverse restaurant owners face. However, she believes that when crafting the new requirements, city officials did not take into consideration that restaurants operate within a 3 to 5% profit margin, and that smaller restaurants often lack the physical capabilities to make alterations to their businesses.
“They didn’t stop to think how this would affect the overall industry and how these restrictions could not be inclusive to all types of restaurants and owners,” she said. “The requirements that they asked for require an additional financial investment that many owners do not have the ability to meet.”
In discussions she’s had with city government on weekly calls representing her business and as PRLA’s local head, Edwards said, she’s begged for financial and technical assistance for restaurants that wanted to get 50% capacity. Such resources would also make the local restaurant industry more equitable for owners of diverse backgrounds, including Black and brown entrepreneurs with more limited access to capital.
Per Edwards, a list on the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s website that was last updated March 9 indicated that very few restaurants owned by people of color have been approved to operate at 50% capacity.
Department of Commerce Communications Director Kevin Lessard told Technical.ly that as of March 23, the health department has approved 136 businesses to operate at 50% capacity. The department does not track the race of business owners when they apply, he said, so it is unable to provide an exact number of how many approved businesses are owned by entrepreneurs of color.
Notably, through this winter’s Philadelphia COVID-19 Restaurant and Gym Relief Program, the City of Philadelphia and PIDC made $12 million in grants to 914 small businesses affected by the City’s most recent pandemic-prompted restrictions. The City reported this month that 80% of apps were for restaurants, and that grants spanned 59 ZIP codes, with more than half going to minority biz owners at an average grant size of $13,200 per business.
Tacony Community Development Corporation Director Alex Balloon connects entrepreneurs in Northeast Philadelphia with business support services and is concerned that a low number of entrepreneurs of color have been certified to operate at 50% capacity. He works with many people running food-based businesses, including many entrepreneurs of color and those from immigrant backgrounds.
Whether they’re trying to pay down bills from vendors, past due rent or other expenses, Balloon said the suggested solutions of improving HVAC in restaurants or adding fans is inconceivable for many restauranteurs of color.
“I know restaurateurs I’ve spoken to are on life support,” he said.
Balloon believes that many entrepreneurs of color did not apply for increased restaurant capacity because of previous denials for similar resources: They’ve been conditioned to believe that they will be denied yet again, and it has affected their willingness to apply for more resources that could potentially help them.
Balloon expressed confidence in the health department’s announcement of April 30 as a potential date to increase capacity further. He is hopeful that with the date being a month away, restaurants will have time to prepare and plan for an increase in capacity.
In the meantime, Lessard said business owners are encouraged to apply to open to 50% capacity and that all applications are reviewed by the health department. Business owners must attest to ventilation standards in their applications. Both the app and a worksheet to help businesses calculate air changes are available on the Guidance page of the City’s COVID-19 website.
“The City has spread awareness of this opportunity for restaurants in various ways including on social media, in newsletters to businesses, in media releases, and through outreach to business corridors, community development corporations, and neighborhood nonprofits,” the spokesperson said.
Edwards said that entrepreneurs responding to the protocol can also reach out to the health department for technical assistance in completing the form, or to the PRLA Philly chapter for help.
Michael Butler is a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
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