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Despite Announcement To Reopen Indoor Dining, Philly Leaders Brace For Tougher Times Ahead

Philadelphia is preparing to reopen indoor dining in its restaurants, but the city isn't out of the woods economically yet.

Center City, Philadelphia

On Thursday, city of Philadelphia Public Health Commissioner Thomas Farley announced that restaurants will be allowed to open for indoor dining at 25% of their original capacity beginning on Sept. 8, provided that coronavirus cases don't rise again.

Indoor gatherings of up to 25 people and movie theaters will also be given the green light to open on the same day, while indoor gaming facilities such as arcades and bowling alleys are permitted effective immediately with food and drink prohibited, according to the city's press release.

Earlier Thursday, City Council member Allan Domb joined Center City District CEO Paul Levy, Department of Commerce Acting Director Sylvie Gallier Howard and North Broad Renaissance Executive Director Shalimar Thomas on Bisnow’s Philadelphia Economic Recovery webinar. They discussed the bleak prospects of the near future and the opportunity it affords to make radical changes.

Domb, also one of the most prominent landlords in the city, has been a consistent critic of the city’s tax structure since before he was elected to council in 2015. He said his office is working on bills that would slash the city’s wage and Business Income Receipts taxes once the coronavirus pandemic is under stable control. Others are looking to capitalize on the rare level of attention being drawn to issues of racial inequity.

“We need to think not just about attracting businesses, but about having equity along with that,” Thomas said. “We need to focus not just on workforce development programs, which are important; we need to make sure there are businesses for that workforce to go to.”

Thomas and Levy agreed that systemic racism in multiple areas of government has damaged trust in Black and other ethnic minority communities.

Clockwise from top left: City of Philadelphia Department of Commerce Acting Director Sylvie Gallier Howard, North Broad Renaissance Executive Director Shalimar Thomas, Center City District CEO Paul Levy and Philadelphia City Council member Allan Domb.

Though police violence has been at the forefront of the months-long protests in Philly and across the country, the Black, indigenous and people of color population has also been historically discriminated against by sources of business financing, reducing participation in programs ostensibly targeted at helping minorities.

“2020 has given us permission to address questions we couldn’t before,” Thomas said. “And one of those questions is the issue of trust. A lot of Black businesses may not be taking advantage of the programs because they don’t trust that they won’t be exploited.”

Center City District published a study on Aug. 13 investigating the density of businesses in Philadelphia compared to other East Coast cities, as well as the racial and ethnic disparities within those numbers. The study found that Philly has fewer Black-owned businesses per capita than New York, Boston, Atlanta or Washington, D.C. — as well as fewer white-owned businesses.

“I think the issue remains our tax policy,” Domb said of the CCD report. “Wage taxes and BIRT — this report highlights that these are the issues we need to address.”

Levy reserved hope that over the next 12 to 18 months, some lasting changes will be made. But for the next six months, or perhaps longer if a vaccine isn’t produced by January, threading the needle between keeping businesses alive and preserving the health of their employees and patrons will be by far the top priority — and a tall order.

“Restaurant work had the most growth of any job from 2010-2019, so that was a big boon to the city,” Levy said. “Every one of these restaurants is desperately relying on takeout and delivery … but we don’t want to be Texas or Arizona and bumble into a fast reopening, only to see a spike in cases.”