Outdoor Seating Permits for Restaurants During Coronavirus Restrictions

NOTE: This post was initially written in June 2020. This information is now mostly out of date — check out our later blog post from January 2023 for the latest changes to outdoor dining laws.

The biggest moments in life sear our memories: weddings, holidays, cross-country moves. In much the same way I’ll remember my first kiss, I’ll always mark June 11, 2020, as the first time Licenses and Inspections in made a permit easier to get. Because on that day, L&I announced that they will allow restaurants to apply for outdoor seating permits in Philadelphia – and review those applications in three days.

Yes, you read correctly: the City of Philadelphia is promising you a permit for outdoor restaurant seating in three days.

Now is not the time to ask questions like, “Wait, why isn’t that permit always issued within three days?” Now is the time to be grateful, and to prepare yourself for Philadelphia’s Yellow Phase of reopening from the pandemic.

You have questions! We have some answers! (Some of these things are still being worked out, so check back in or contact us for updates.)

What are these outdoor seating permits in Philadelphia?

In the old times, before June, an outdoor seating permit in Philadelphia came in exactly one form: A sidewalk cafe license. This license took about 4-6 weeks to get, and required a pretty detailed plan to be submitted with the application. Now, L&I is promising four permits, each for different types of outdoor dining or pickup:

  • Sidewalk Café — This will allow you to temporarily use the sidewalk in front of a restaurant for seating, without submitting architectural plans. Basically this is the same as the old permit, except the review time will be cut by literally 1,000%. One big change: You can also use the sidewalk in front of the business next door or across the street for seating, as long as you have written permission from the owner.
  • Streetery — This permit lets you convert curbside parking zones into outdoor seating or pickup areas for food and beverages.
  • Temporary use of private lots for dining — Similar idea to the “Streetery” above: restaurants can convert spaces in their parking lots into restaurant seating. They can also seat in vacant lots in most commercial and mixed-use zoning districts. THIS ONE WILL TAKE LONGER THAN THREE DAYS. There’s just no way you can get a zoning permit that fast, even with some red tape snipped.
  • Temporary street closure — This one is a pilot program for this summer. It will allow the temporary closure of some streets for restaurant seating. THIS ONE WILL ALSO TAKE LONGER THAN THREE DAYS. See below for some more information!

Can any restaurant get these permits?

Sadly, no: you need a sidewalk at least ten feet wide to get a an outdoor seating permit, and at least eight feet between the sidewalk and the travel lane of any road for the “Streetery” permit.

How long do these permits last?

The new Philadelphia outdoor seating permits are temporary: they last through December 2021.

Repeat: these permits are temporary!

When the permits first appeared in June 2020, The City hasn’t determined how long they would allow these new outdoor dining permits. At first, there was a vague suggestion that the permits would last until it got cold, unless there were basically no more cases of COVID-19 in the Northeast and we all got back to eating indoors in close quarters with strangers. This is not how things worked out. So in lated 2020, with indoor dining once again illegal in the City, the City of Philadelphia extended temporary outdoor dining permits through 2021.

If you want to serve food outside beyond 2021, you’ll need to get the old sidewalk cafe license, and draw up plans and submit to Streets. (Or, you know, just have Permit Philly do it for you!)

How do I apply for these permits?

Simplest way: let us handle it! Drop us a line at contact@permitphilly.com.

If you’re committed to doing it yourself (or just want to understand the process), it goes like this for the sidewalk cafe or “streetery” permit:

First, you collect the following:

  • Food license Liquor license (if serving alcohol) BIRT (Philly Tax ID)
  • You can find this, usually, on your NPT returns, if you’re not sure where to get it
  • CAL (Commercial Activity License)
  • Food license Liquor license (if serving alcohol)
  • BIRT (Philly Tax ID)
    • You can find this, usually, on your NPT returns, if you’re not sure where to get it

Then, you fill out this form. If you want to put seats in front of one neighboring business, you can do that too; but only if the owner of that business signs a letter saying you can.

Finally, you apply through eCLIPSE, the City’s online permitting system. You’ll need to associate your eCLIPSE account with your Commercial Activity License to start, if you haven’t already done that. Once that’s done, click on “Apply for a New Business License,” search for “sidewalk cafe,” and select the option for the temporary license.

Check out the City’s guide on the topic, too!

Wait, what about the other permits? The temporary street closure and all that?

Those permits are for Business Improvement Districts or groups of restaurants. It’s a pilot program to shut down entire sections of Philly streets to allow for outdoor seating. This has been done throughout the summer and fall, for instance, in the Gayborhood or “Midtown Village” area centered around 13th Street and Sansom. For an overview, check out some fine additional information from Billy Penn. Then look over the application form itself for more details.

If that’s too much fine print for you, just get in touch!

Anything else I need to know to get an outdoor seating permit in Philly?

It’s unclear how strictly this has been enforced, but you are supposed to prepare a plan for safety in the face of, you know, the ongoing global pandemic. Quoting from the City’s “Guidelines for Outdoor Dining” pamphlet, which appeared – magically – on June 12, you’ll need:

  • A plan for meeting Health Department regulations
  • Minimum 6 feet social distance
  • Safety protection for employees
  • Access for emergency service (ambulance, fire, etc.)
  • Litter/recycling service or easy access for City Sanitation crews
  • A point of contact responsible for maintaining operations
  • Compliance with Mayor’s Orders on business activity and public gatherings

What if I already have an outdoor seating permit?

Philadelphia will let you get right back to serving today, June 12th, as long as you follow COVID-19 safety procedures.

What I already have a patio area?

You can serve there! Again, make sure everyone is distant and that the staff are wearing masks – customers too, except when they’re seated.

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