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Is Philadelphia's new COVID-19 lockdown a last call for the city's restaurant scene?

For many of Philadelphia’s restaurants and bars the newly imposed COVID-19 restrictions means dark days ahead as eateries try to stay afloat. But is this second round of shutdown necessary or overkill? The debate rages on. | Image provided

“We love you all and appreciate you.” 

Those were the final words Fergus Carey sent in a group text to his staff last week. The renowned bar mogul – who earned Philly icon status as the man behind Fergie’s Pub – was preparing his crew for impending unemployment. Over at City Hall, rumors of strict lockdown requirements were brewing, and for the first time this year, health officials reported more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases throughout the city.

In a year marked by economic hardship for small businesses, Carey was once again the bearer of bad news. 

“We’ll be shuttering down the bars until god knows when. Maybe April,” he told PW in a recent  interview. 

“Business is dropping like mad.” 

During a Monday afternoon virtual press conference, Mayor Jim Kenney and Health Commissioner Thomas Farley announced restrictions that ban all indoor dining and limit outdoor seating to no more than four people per table – who must be from the same household. The restrictions go into place beginning this Friday and last through Jan. 1, 2021. 

The new mandate comes in response to a rise in COVID cases throughout the city and also affects all events and gatherings, high schools and colleges, theaters and performance spaces, bowling alleys and arcades, casinos, youth and community sports, and gyms and senior centers. 

“People mixing from different households without masks is exactly how this virus spreads,” said Farley, who expects restaurateurs will enforce the single-household policy themselves. 

The indoor dining ban is a strict reversal of the 50 percent capacity allowance that floated some businesses through the fall. Since capacity limits were relaxed in September, the city has reported a 700 percent increase in coronavirus cases. 

Following Monday’s restrictions, Carey’s ventures now have no other option but to suspend operations and hunker down for the long winter ahead. Along with Fergie’s Pub in Center City, Carey owns Grace Tavern in Fitler Square and The Fairview in Fairmount. Up until this year, he was co-owner of the massively popular Belgian beer spot Monk’s Cafe. Last Wednesday, Monk’s shuttered its doors entirely for the foreseeable future. 

Originally from Dublin, Carey arrived in Philadelphia during the 80’s. Working as a bartender, he climbed the ladder to ownership status by 1994 with the launch of Fergie’s. Being in the game for 25 years, he’s the type of guy who always remembers your name – and the type to put his employees over profits. After Monday’s announcement, that option is off the table. 

“I’d hoped to stay open, even if I was just breaking even. If the staff were making money and getting paid, I’d be happy with that,” he said. 

Carey said he understands the city is trying to save lives, but he’d like to see economic relief from officials. 

Economic relief for many businesses expected to come in the form of the CARES Act is tight as Mayor Jim Kenney noted that Philadelphia received just six percent of the funding allotted to Pennsylvania, despite making up over 10 percent of the commonwealth’s population. | Image provided

“When you restrict our ability to do business, you need to give us aid.” 

When Kenney was asked about what financial assistance his office could offer restaurant owners, he cited that the city has only received 6 percent of the CARES Act emergency funding awarded to Pennsylvania, despite the fact that Philadelphia makes up 12 percent of the state’s population.

Kenney stressed that Congress should be doing more. 

“We cannot simply, as a city, handle this ourselves,” the mayor said. 

Even at 50 percent capacity, Carey says his businesses were struggling. Fergie’s makes a good chunk of its income at the bar, which restrictions prohibit. And while they have a kitchen that’s open for take-out, it’s an expensive operation to maintain. 

Fergie’s enjoyed a slight economic rebound in August when they expanded outdoor dining onto the street, seating up to 50 guests. With the cold weather settling in, these profits are beginning to evaporate. 

“Take-out and freezing outdoor dining – that’s not going to cut it,” he said.

Earlier this year, Carey joined fellow restaurateur Nicole Marquis to form the Save Philly Restaurants coalition. Marquis is the founder of HipCityVeg, Bar Bombón, and Charlie was a sinner. Composed of more than 200 business owners, the coalition petitions local and state officials for economic aid on behalf of restaurants. Notable coalition members include Steve Cook of Zahav, Ellen Yin of High Street and Jonathan Adams of Rival Bros. Coffee. 

During the first wave of COVID cases, Marquis’ restaurants were lucky enough to receive assistance from the Paycheck Protection Program. But eight months into the pandemic, that money has run out. 

“Take-out and freezing outdoor dining – that’s not going to cut it.”

Fergus Carey, owner Fergie’s Pub

“We just got through hiring everyone back, and now we’re looking at furloughs again,” says Marquis. “It’s utter chaos.” 

Marquis and the Save Philly coalition agree that a second round of funding from the CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program is the only way to ensure survival. 

“Our government and leaders have had the entire summer to make sure we were in a safer place for the winter,” she added. 

Jeff Hornstein, executive director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, has more than a decade’s experience advocating for small businesses in the area. He said that scatter-shot leadership from the state and federal government have doomed the restaurant industry. 

“Philadelphia just doesn’t have the resources,” he told PW. 

“The city budget is a drop in the bucket. The $10 million COVID relief fund was sucked up in 20 minutes. The money has to come from Washington.” 

Hornstein sees another round of PPP funding as the only way businesses can avoid a shutdown, though he’s skeptical it will happen. Applications for the PPP closed on Aug. 8, and the future of the program lies in Congress.

Philadelphia is known as a culinary destination, one that has brought millions to the region every year. COVID-19 has put a damper on that, but many feel so has city government. | Image provided

“Even if we get another round, businesses aren’t allowed to double-dip. It’s operating on the crazy assumption that this would be over in six months,” he said. 

Unlike Marquis’ restaurants, Carey hasn’t seen much government assistance. Without relief, he resorted to starting a GoFundMe to save Fergie’s. To his amazement, the campaign crowd-sourced $30,000 within its first 18 hours. As of Nov. 16, he’s raised $64,000, which will fund Fergie’s last weeks and assist in the reopening – whenever that may be. 

This all comes after Fergie’s recorded a record year of sales in 2019. 

“If you told me last year I’d be doing a GoFundMe to save the bar, I’d say you’re crazy,” said Carey. 

“Our government and leaders have had the entire summer to make sure we were in a safer place for the winter.”

Nicole Marquis, co-founder and owner, Hip City Veg

Hornstein stressed that the beginnings of an economic recovery in the restaurant industry are still far off. 

“Let’s be optimistic and say we get a COVID vaccine in late spring,” he said. “By the third quarter of 2021, we’ll only begin to see a recovery.”

It’s a timeline that extends well past Carey’s goal of reopening in April. 

When the dust settles, where in Philly will the damage lie? Certainly all over, but Hornstein worries Center City small businesses are at increased risk. As white-collar companies adopt work-from-home models and office buildings remain empty, the bars and restaurants that once depended on them will go under. 

Looking ahead, Carey is equally concerned that another lockdown will permanently change the landscape of Philly’s vibrant food and drink institutions. 

“What’s our city going to look like after this? Scarred and desolate?” Carey mused. 

“‘Remember Dirty Franks?’ they’ll say. ‘Remember Monk’s?’”