Hymie’s Deli owner Louis Barson is considering putting away the pickle bar again, less than a month after putting it back in the Lower Merion deli’s dining area, worrying about the spread of germs.
Barson, like some other Jewish restaurant owners, is concerned about the impact the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus will have on the health of his workers and on his business.
COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania have risen 164% since two weeks ago, according to The New York Times and Department of Health and Human Services. In the United States, 80% of new COVID-19 cases are the delta variant.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Aug. 3 that, in the coming weeks, vaccinations would be required for patrons of restaurants, gyms and other indoor venues.
Philadelphia does not have a citywide vaccine requirement, but some restaurants in the city, such as Martha, Le Virtu and Vetri Cucina have taken it upon themselves to enact a vaccine mandate.
Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook will require proof of vaccination for indoor dining at restaurants Abe Fisher, Zahav and Laser Wolf starting on Aug. 31. They will have no requirements for Goldie, Federal Donuts, K’Far and Dizengoff, and Solomonov and Cook declined a request for further comment.
Hymie’s will not require proof of vaccination at this point, but the restaurant has reinstated a masking policy for its staff; all employees must now wear a mask, though most are vaccinated. If cases in the area keep rising, Barson will ask customers to do the same when they enter the restaurant.
“Hopefully this is just a half a step back, not four steps back,” Barson said.
Barson reached out to Montgomery County Health Department to see if it had any insight on whether the state or county would enact any new precautions. It didn’t, Barson said, but Hymie’s will be cautious anyway.
Barson recently ordered a sign to post outside the restaurant “kindly” asking customers to wear a mask. He said he didn’t want to get into politics with anyone or argue, especially if there wasn’t a law in place that required patrons to wear masks or to get vaccinated.
However, according to Barson, more and more customers were wearing masks these past few weeks.
Along with increased precautions is also increased fear. Barson noticed that his customers’ mannerisms are different: People are more conscious of others getting too close to them, a behavior Barson thought dissipated in June and July, when COVID-19 cases were lower.
“It’s sad to see,” Barson said. “That’s not the way it’s supposed to go.”
Schlesinger’s owner Allan Domb, the real estate developer and city councilman, also noticed more mask-wearing in his deli’s dining room.
Schlesinger’s never completely returned to its pre-pandemic layout: the tables in the deli are still spaced out, and plastic boundaries above the cash register remain. The deli also recommended mask-wearing but doesn’t require it.
Schlesinger’s precautions do not include a vaccine requirement and won’t unless the Philadelphia Department of Public Health says otherwise.
“We’re going to follow the city’s direction and will comply with everything the city requests us to do,” Domb said.
A handful of Jewish-owned restaurants in the area declined comment on whether they would require vaccination for their patrons; the topic is polarizing and politicized. Though the number of restaurants with vaccination policies is growing, they total fewer than 15 in Greater Philadelphia, as of Aug. 10.
One of the Philadelphia restaurants that implemented a vaccine requirement, Martha, which is not Jewish-owned, recognized that. It hopes that, by creating the policy, other restaurants will have the confidence to follow.
“We are not telling people to get the vaccine; we are not turning people away,” said Olivia Caceres, Martha’s general manager.
Instead, if a customer is not vaccinated or does not present proof of vaccination, the restaurant will seat them outside.
Martha wants to protect its employees, who are not able to qualify for unemployment benefits if the restaurant shuts down again.
“We’re trying to do what we can to prevent another shutdown by putting this policy in place, which is small, and it’s something we can only do within our space,” Caceres said. “But if other bars and restaurants are doing that as well, that makes a bigger impact.”
Like Caceres, Domb is also worried about staffing, but for other reasons; since the start of the pandemic, he’s had several employees leave and has been short-staffed. The other month, Domb was a server all day on Sunday. Three weeks ago, the deli closed for the day because there were not enough staff.
Domb is concerned about what the lasting impacts of the pandemic will be on all restaurants in the Philadelphia area, but also on businesses like his: old-school, nostalgic delis.
“To many people, going to a delicatessen brings back tremendous memories of being with their parents and their grandparents,” Domb said. “People love it.”