As local businesses prepare to adhere to new COVID-19 citywide restrictions, Smokey Joe’s Bar, which in a normal year sees hordes of Penn students night after night, will have to close its doors indefinitely.
Philadelphia’s new restrictions, which announced on Monday, include the closing of schools, theatres, libraries, casinos, and indoor dining. They will go into effect Friday and last until at least Jan. 1. Smokey Joe's owner Paul Ryan said the bar will close its doors starting Friday and open as soon as indoor dining is allowed again in the city.
Prior to the new guidelines, Smokes had been operating at 50% capacity, or a maximum of about sixty customers seated in the restaurant, at a given time. No one was allowed to be seated at the bar. Ryan said, however, the restaurant has not seen even close to 60 customers at one time in the few months it has been open for indoor dining.
Earlier this month, one study conducted by Stanford University professors reported that indoor dining may be a major contributor to the spread of COVID-19. The study found that when analyzing the source of coronavirus spread, full and limited-service restaurants were among the sites of largest predicted increases in infection, along with public spaces such as gyms, hotels, and churches, upon their reopening.
Ryan added that in the past few weeks, he has seen more and more students coming to the weekly "Quizzo" trivia night that the bar holds on Thursday evenings.
"[Quizzo night] seemed to get more popular, all of a sudden. I don't know why. I guess there's nothing else to do," Ryan said. "They call it COVID fatigue, this idea that people are fed up with the virus, and, I think, young people especially, assume that it's obviously not very dangerous for college-aged students."
Ryan, however, speculates that most of the increased cases being reported are the result of small in-house gatherings, noting that fifteen minutes or more in small confines with non-housemates, without masks, is known to be a probable site for virus spreading.
Because most of his staff are Penn students, Ryan said he has only had only one older employee not return to work, for the time being, cognizant of the fact that he is at a higher risk of contracting the virus.
“My daytime bartender is 74 and obviously he stopped working. Number one, because the bars aren’t open, and number two, I just wouldn't bring him in [due to increased COVID-19 risks] at 74 years old.”
While this is the end of Smokes' business for this semester, Ryan remains hopeful for the spring semester.
"I suspect if Penn does bring their students back, we'll probably be able to have 25% or 50% [occupancy] in January and February, but I think once the vaccine gets out, hopefully that will be March or April, maybe later in April things should start to get back to normal," he said. "I just really hope the University brings its students back next semester."
Two leading COVID-19 vaccines, produced by pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Pfizer, have shown remarkably effective results in preliminary trials. Although these vaccines are expected to be licensed by the Food and Drug Administration by the end of the year and quickly distributed to frontline healthcare workers, it remains unclear when the general public will receive to it. The United States' top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci estimates that vaccines will become more readily available later in the spring and summer.
Nursing sophomore Olivia Koch told the DP that she ate at the bar last week, and felt "very safe and comfortable" doing so. She said that she believes the increase in students frequenting Smokes, especially for weekly events like Quizzo Night, could be happening because of the lack of opportunities for safe socialization as coronavirus cases in the area continue to rise.
“Basically, the only thing people are able to do right now is go out to dinners and things like that, so as it gets colder and indoor dining is not available, there becomes even less to do,” Koch said. “I know a lot of people who were originally planning on coming back between Thanksgiving and Christmas who are not planning to do that anymore because there's just nothing really to do here."
College junior Ryan Methot, who works at Smokes as a bouncer, said that he is glad the indoor dining shutdown hadn’t come any earlier.
“Smokes really thrives off of Penn kids, so at least this shutdown is sort of lining up with our winter break when business won’t be as affected,” Methot said. “Next Thursday is Thanksgiving, meaning that no one would have gone to that Quizzo regardless, so there’s really only two weekends left where [Ryan] could have really made money. But obviously, we still aren’t that happy about it.”
Methot added that while he believes this is generally a tough time for restaurant employees in general — most of whom face fewer hours and staff cuts — he is most concerned with what the non-Penn student employees will do, as their income may be greatly limited with the onset of these new COVID-19 restrictions.
“I need the money on one hand, but, luckily, as a student, if worst comes to worst, I do have the ability to ask my parents [for help]," Methot said. "I can’t even imagine what it must be like for some of the non-Penn students that work there, [earnings at Smokes] is their income. That is their livelihood."
Though Methot found Quizzo nights to have become increasingly popular during his shifts as this past semester progressed, he added that the bar's atmosphere is quite different than in past semesters while operating under social distancing protocol.
“I think everyone misses those days of going to Sink or Swim or grabbing a drink on Friday or Saturday after a party, and just piling in when it would get super crowded,” Methot said. “It’s just part of the identity of being a student at Penn, and that social butterfly reputation we have as a school. It’s at the heart of the Penn tradition, so I worry about it, and I hope future students get to experience that.”
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