Philly’s wands were put through the press. Are you normal again?
Philadelphia’s bars had a tumultuous pandemic marked by Shutdowns and silver linings like take-away cocktails, lavish outdoor restaurants, and a host of new bottle shops in the bar. They also adapted to (sometimes seemingly arbitrary) rules that came and went: the PLCB boarded up their stores, Governor Wolf banned the serving Drinks without food and the last call was postponed to 11 p.m. nationwide for almost a year.
Is Philly’s bar scene back to normal now that the plastic barriers have fallen and the liquor can flow freely again?
At Dirty Franks, it can feel like where proof of vaccination is required to drink indoors, which means staff and guests alike can be maskless.
“It looks normal,” says owner Jody Sweitzer. “People are having a good time. And because of the vaccination, we’re now allowing people to go deep twice – we’re letting more people in. “
Bartender Patty Rogalski agrees. “It feels like we’re a bar again.” She suggests that Frank’s closely-knit tribe of regulars has indeed grown closer together because of the pandemic.
But when Rogalski and Sweitzer venture beyond the comfort of their homeland, concern creeps in. Even familiar meeting places run by colleagues who know and love them radiate insecurity.
“I trust my group,” says Rogalski. “But I don’t know if I trust the masses.”
This break is perhaps the biggest change in going bar. Grabbing a drink takes more calculation. Perhaps you were wondering about your budget before the pandemic. Now there are other things that I have to take care of: Do I feel comfortable in this environment? What are their guidelines? Are there too many people? How is the ventilation?
Philadelphia bars collectively span two worlds. One foot is in the throes of 2020-21, haunted by memories of surges, shutdowns, and the sudden high-stakes training of waiting for customers. The other foot hovers in mid-air, waiting to step back in a post-pandemic world – a premise that seems increasingly hazy and impossible to define.
The scene felt like she took that step forward in mid-June, when the last call returned to its normal time and when the city’s indoor mask requirement was lifted for workers and customers alike. On June 10, the final day for these rules, the Interstate Draft House in Fishtown closed at 11 p.m. and then reopened at midnight for an additional two hours. Regulars flocked back in to celebrate.
“You can feel it among the people,” co-owner Mike McCloskey told the inquirer. “When the masks were taken off inside, people finally said, ‘Now it feels normal again.'”
Other remnants of restrictions began to disappear. Tables and chairs were no longer apart. Hand sanitiser pumps disappeared from the tabletops while salt and pepper shakers returned. Shower curtain dividers came down between the cubicles at Oscar’s Tavern in Center City.
But this nudge towards normality turned out to be a bit premature. Just two months later, in August, the city announced that the mandate for inner masks had returned, unless companies opted for proof of vaccination. Once again, bars and restaurants were hooked to enforce the masking – or they could take an even more politically tense path and ask employees and customers to show their vaccination cards.
It was a relatively easy decision for some bartenders, including Sweitzer who had decided to card people by the day the city reinstated the mandate. Others stayed safe for a few days and then announced they would ask for evidence. Many have simply used masking by default.
The list of bars and restaurants that require a vaccination card for back office work is getting longer. While workers and owners generally agree that this is a good thing, the city is still calling on these institutions – and ultimately their workers – to enforce the policy and act as cudgels. A subgroup of customers expresses resentment, indignation, and a number of other emotions for this reason.
»READ MORE: Full List Of Places In The Philly Area Where You Are Required To Show Evidence Of Vaccination (So Far)
“People seem strangely surprised that they have to wear a mask now, as if the pandemic wasn’t going on, as if we hadn’t just been through it,” says R&D bartender Solomon Thomas.
Bars and restaurants were enforcing rules before the pandemic. They carded people and cut them off. But the coronavirus has subtly shifted the momentum. Workers have been accused of complying with public health standards in more open ways than just keeping the place clean. Perhaps that is why more and more workers have begun to push back the long-established “customer is always right” mentality. With managers and owners on their side, it could lead to a major shift in the industry, although it is difficult to say what the impact would be.
COVID-19 has also created all sorts of other problems in the industry. Food and alcohol supply chains remain tight, creating scarcity, impacting menu options and increasing prices. The acute crisis for workers has brought about good changes and less big changes: wages have risen and other standards may improve, but working hours have become unpredictable. Staff shortage means that the workers standing on the clock are thinly distributed. Some bars keep their kitchens closed at certain times or days; others close well before 2 a.m.
One reason for the reduced ranks in the service industry is that many veteran waiters, chefs, bartenders, and managers have made other career choices, said Thomas, who is also the president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the US Bartenders’ Guild.
“In a positive way, [the pandemic] gave more options to some of us who didn’t spend as much time introspectively thinking about what we could do with our lives outside of these opportunities. When that happened, a lot of people who were in this industry realized that this industry wasn’t really serving them, ”he says.
The absence of these veterans makes recruiting more difficult, but Thomas also sees an advantage. There is an influx of young and newly interested workers who are laying the foundations for a next generation. “We train new employees to become excellent bartenders. It takes a while, ”he says. “We just can’t do 100% of our speed, volume and capacity the way we want, even if we weren’t in a pandemic.”
What is the sum of these changes for the customers? The service can be a little slower, the prices higher, the night shorter. But you can’t tell the difference either. Bar-goers can still crowd around a table or dance floor and forget their worries for a while.
“Check out the Gayborhood on a weekend evening – it’s full,” says Resa Mueller, a long-time Philly bartender who is also currently doing research and development. “People are back and ready to dance.”
It will take years to define the impact of the pandemic on the industry – its effects are still being felt. In the meantime, for those ready to lie on their stomach, enough for the bar to be back.