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Philly Special Restaurant Reopening Rules

Philadelphia restaurants are now able to allow 50% capacity for indoor dining. However, they must meet new ventilation standards set forth by the Philadelphia Department of Health, and many restaurant owners are confused about the application process. According to official guidelines released by the Philadelphia Department of Health, if a restaurant uses an HVAC system or standalone ventilation unit, the following standards are required for reopening to 50% capacity:

  • HVAC system is fully operational and ventilates the entire indoor dining area

  • At least 20% outside is air circulated by the HVAC system

  • Filtration is MERV 11 or higher

  • At least 15 air exchanges per hour are measured indoors

  • The exhaust vent has a minimum six-foot clearance from tables, chairs, or other items

  • If a restaurant uses window fans instead of an HVAC system, at least 15 air exchanges per hour must be measured indoors

Restaurant Reopening Rules

Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) is a system used to evaluate the efficiency of an air filter based on how effective it is at catching particles of varying sizes. Basically, the higher the MERV rating, the higher the air filtration capabilities of a particular filter. Restaurants will be required to provide documentation, either from their HVAC maintenance company or the establishment proprietor, certifying that these standards are met. Yet, most restaurant owners are not proficient in HVAC systems.

“I took a look at it today, and I’m not an HVAC person. So we’re definitely going to have to bring somebody in,” said Erin Wallace, who owns the Devil’s Den in South Philadelphia.

“I’m still struggling how to figure 50% capacity, but still keeping six feet, how it’s going to work out and what is the cost redoing the AC system,” said Moon Krapugthong, chef and owner of Chabaa Thai Bistro in Manayunk.

Bringing in an HVAC technician will clearly lead to a hefty cost just to see whether changes must be made. Currently, the city estimates that meeting the health department’s standards can cost a restaurant anywhere from $300 to $5000. And while a restaurant owner almost certainly will have to bring in an HVAC technician to evaluate their current system, they are still left wondering how long the city will continue to allow 50% indoor dining. The guidelines state, “As Covid-19 case rates change, these capacity limits may be revised.” Therefore, a restaurant owner may have to choose to forgo this expense and be left with the option of reopening at 25% indoor capacity. Interestingly, restaurants in Philadelphia operated in the fall at 50% occupancy without ventilation standards, and there was no documented impact on case counts or outbreaks.

COVID-19 Restrictions

These restrictions are leaving many restaurant owners asking: the virus does not operate differently in Philadelphia than it does elsewhere in Pennsylvania, so why are our rules so drastically different than in the rest of the Commonwealth’s?

It is important to note that other Pennsylvania rules remain in place. You cannot order an alcoholic beverage without purchasing a meal for on-premises consumption. Additionally, seating and alcohol service past 11:00 p.m. remain prohibited.

©2022 Norris McLaughlin P.A., All Rights ReservedNational Law Review, Volume XI, Number 62

About this Author

Brandon J. Lee Liquor Law Attorney Norris McLaughlin PA

Brandon J. Lee concentrates his practice on liquor law with a passion for the craft beverage industry.

Brandon supports our extensive Liquor Law, Manufacturing, and Distribution Practice Group. He handles regulatory work with various states’ alcoholic beverage control, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB), and the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). He assists in the drafting and review of distribution...

Theodore Zeller Attorney Norris Law Firm

Theodore J. Zeller III has extensive experience in liquor law, regulatory licensing, commercial transactions, real estate transactions, and litigation.

Chair of the firm’s Liquor Law Practice Group, Ted was lead counsel in a beer rights case brought against the world’s largest brewers and is now General Counsel to D.G. Yuengling & Son, Inc.

Ted’s lobbying efforts helped change various laws under the Pennsylvania Liquor Code. In 2010, Ted testified before the Senate Law and Justice Committee on behalf of Yuengling Brewery concerning House Bill 291, which addresses the...

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