The teetotaling Quakers who founded West Chester more than 250 years ago might have choked on their soft cider had they envisioned the exotic scene on Gay Street one recent Friday evening.
The cordoned-off thoroughfare resembled a Roman plaza, with hundreds of outdoor diners filling socially distanced tables. Crowds of young people, most wearing surgical masks as if bound for some medical Mardi Gras, flitted in and out of bars. Aproned waiters, moving as self-assuredly as their Parisian counterparts, navigated the maze while hoisting trays of wine and hors d’oeuvres.
On Friday and Saturday nights when skies are clear and temperatures mild, West Chester’s commercial vitality appears to contradict the prevailing wisdom about the COVID-19 pandemic’s social and economic hardships.
While the disease’s costs and restrictions have left many Philadelphia-area malls, shopping centers, and small-town commercial districts on life support, restaurant-laden West Chester has remained surprisingly stable.
The number of small businesses open in Philadelphia fell by 24% compared with January 2020, according to Opportunity Insights, a Harvard-backed research institute. But in West Chester, the only enterprise in the borough’s downtown heart to shut its doors recently was a Starbucks.
“And that had already been in the works,” said John O’Brien, executive director of the town’s business improvement district. “A lot of businesses are teetering on the brink, but so far West Chester has been very resilient.”
That’s evident wherever you look in this Chester County seat. At Church and Gay Streets, a recently opened office building has already leased all of its three upper floors. Plans for a second borough hotel, at Gay and Walnut, have been given the green light. Elsewhere, according to O’Brien, an oyster bar, a brew pub, a barbershop, a co-op market, and a kitchen-remodeling business are among the enterprises preparing to open.