Republicans just killed outdoor dining in Pennsylvania

An elephant.
An elephant. Illustrated | iStock

Over the last year, restaurants across Pennsylvania have spent millions and millions of dollars reconfiguring themselves to sell takeout drinks and building outdoor shelters in nearby parking spaces, so that people could continue to eat out without risking being infected with COVID-19.

That enormous investment collided headlong this week with the state's Republican Party and its vindictive crusade against Democratic Governor Tom Wolf. The takeout drinks and outdoor construction was enabled by Wolf's pandemic emergency declaration, which the state GOP has nonsensically attacked as some kind of death blow to freedom. They therefore added a constitutional amendment to the recent primary election ballot that would give the legislature the power to overturn a governor's emergency declaration.

Unfortunately (in part because it was a low-turnout primary) this amendment passed, and the Pennsylvania legislature has duly canceled Wolf's emergency declaration. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board then ruled that the stipulations allowing for takeout drinks and outdoor dining have been repealed. Whoops!

It's maddening both because Republicans clearly did not think through what they were doing (they have since proposed a bill to legalize takeout drinks, but coupled it with a measure to undermine the state liquor monopoly, so Wolf is likely to veto it), and because this is precisely the wrong step to take with outdoor dining in the future. There will no doubt be an enormous fight this summer even in dense cities like Philadelphia and New York about whether to sacrifice a few parking spots so that restaurants can retain space for outdoor dining. Even the slightest restriction on driving tends to lead to enraged protest from drivers.

But in truth, outdoor dining during the pandemic has been a highly welcome reclamation of public property — taking space away from hugely underpriced car storage and moving it toward more pleasant, walkable neighborhoods. Takeout drinks might be phased out when the pandemic has truly passed, but outdoor dining facilities should remain indefinitely. Cities should be for people, not vehicles.

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