COVID-19 takes heavy toll on Philly bars, restaurants

Hop Angel Brauhaus in Fox Chase.
Bonk’s Bar in Port Richmond.PHOTO: GOOGLE MAPS
Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar in South Philly.PHOTO: GOOGLE MAPS

Mike “Scoats” Scotese spent this past weekend preparing take-out orders by himself at the Grey Lodge Pub.

Usually, his Mayfair bar draws a crowd, but, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting closures, Scotese has been forced to lay off all his employees.

“We really have no idea how long this is going to last—two weeks, a month, two months, into the summer,” he said. “It’s a very big unknown.”

“We spent years building our staff at the Grey Lodge,” Scotese added. “We’ve got a great staff. Hopefully, it will be short, and everybody will be able to come back.”

Bars and restaurants have been particularly harmed by the coronavirus, especially after Mayor Jim Kenney banned dine-in service on March 16 in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus and “flatten the curve.”

Early nation-wide projections say the industry could lose $225 billion and cut between 5 and 7 million jobs, according to a letter sent to President Donald Trump and Congressional leaders from the National Restaurant Association.

Business owners are suffering, but their employees, many of whom work primarily off tips and can earn as little as $2.83 an hour, are scrambling to cover basic costs.

Holmesburg resident Cheryl Molle, who works in marketing and fundraising for the HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy, started the Philly Restaurant Server Relief Fund on March 13 after she heard of restaurants slashing hours.

The fundraiser has been successful, raising more than $28,000, but demand far exceeds supply. So far, Molle and the team of community activists running the fund have received 450 applications.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘I’m not even sure if my restaurant will reopen after this,’” Molle said. “Everyone is extremely worried about their financial well-being now.”

They’re currently on track to send out $400 checks every week to 17 servers for four weeks. Molle said they considered the cost of living in the city and the average salary of a waiter in coming up with the number.

Molle and her team is keeping a close eye on federal relief packages and developments to the state’s unemployment process. If the government starts sending out checks, the fund will pivot and be able to potentially aid 60 servers over a shorter time period.

The fund, which is run primarily through Facebook, is open to full-time servers who live in Philadelphia and don’t have second jobs. Recipients are picked on a first-come, first-serve basis.

People who sign up now won’t have a good chance to get compensated, but Molle is building a network to allow restaurant workers to share resources through email and social media.

Rosemary Capozzoli, who, along with her husband, owns Ray’s “Happy Birthday” Bar at Passyunk Avenue and Federal Street, had been paying her employees to disinfect the bar and do odd jobs around the property.

That came to an end with Kenney’s stay-at-home order, which went into effect Monday. However, Capozzoli is still paying her employees’ salary, at least through the end of the week.

“We’re going to have to take a loss, okay, but it’s more about the people that live day-by-day,” she said. “A lot of these bartenders don’t even have health benefits.”

Capozzoli said a Venmo account has been set up to help bartenders at Ray’s, which is not doing take-out orders.

Online fundraisers have raised more than $5,700 for staff at McGillin’s Olde Ale House in Center City and more than $5,500 for employees at Fishtown’s Johnny Brenda’s.

Capozzoli is trying to get the liquor companies that stock Ray’s shelf to lend a hand. She’s been dismayed at ads encouraging people to drink at home while quarantining, while bartenders and doormen who help them make their money go penniless.

She would also like to see government programs benefit workers hurt by the shutdowns, not just business owners.

Ray’s is in a good position, Capozzoli said, because her family, which has run the bar since 1938, owns the building.

Scotese owns Grey Lodge’s Frankford Avenue storefront, but he’s a partner in two other bars, Bonk’s in Port Richmond and Hop Angel Brauhaus in Fox Chase, that rent their properties.

There’s been rumors Hop Angel is closed permanently. Scotese declined to comment.

For Bonk’s, foreclosures have been suspended, so they will have to work something out once the crisis is over, Scotese said. Grey Lodge can hold off a bit longer.

“We can just idle as long as needed,” Scotese said. “I mean, it will be tough for me.”

Capozzoli lamented the closure of Ray’s, which, she said, has a tight-knit community that, like so many other social groups, is no longer able to meet.

“It’s just a very sad situation,” she said. “I just want to see it end.”

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