In a normal winter, Mhairi Robertson tries to fill the seats inside Bistro La Source, a swanky French restaurant in Jersey City. This year, she’s trying to fill bubbles.

Robertson, the manager of the restaurant, says the six plastic dining bubbles situated in the restaurant’s parking lot is an essential part of their business plan, as indoor dining is currently capped at 12 people.

“If we didn't have them, we wouldn't have any business,” she said. She added, “We don't really have any alternatives.”

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As New Jersey’s restaurants are looking to adapt yet again amid rising coronavirus cases and tighter dining restrictions, people in the restaurant industry like Robertson are hoping that outdoor dining bubbles can help them stay afloat this winter.

The plastic domes have been popping up at restaurants across the state, a boon for those who have them. But the bubbles are less profitable than regular dining, some said, as bubble-related costs mount.

Ramazan Taylan, co-owner of the Fig & Lily Garden in Morristown, said his 10 bubbles, also known as igloos, have been more popular for customers than regular indoor dining, since they make diners feel safe. But they require more maintenance than his usual indoor operations, as he aggressively cleans and ventilates them in between parties. They also cost roughly $1,500 a pop, not including the extra features like heating.

“For this [pandemic] situation, the igloos are good because people feel comfortable and safe in it,” he said. “But for business operations, it is getting much more costly.” 

Gov. Phil Murphy permitted bubble dining in a recent executive order, requiring that it be capped at eight people, be cleaned in between parties in accordance with CDC and DOH guidelines and follow other outdoor dining protocols. 

The most critical element to the igloo’s safety, though, is proper ventilation, which is mandated in the executive order. Experts said the virus could linger between parties without ventilation — being akin to indoor dining — but with proper precautions in place, risk could be greatly mitigated.  

“If the bubbles are opened up and they're getting well ventilated in between parties and the surfaces are wiped down and you're dining with the people you've been quarantined or isolated with, then it's fairly low risk to the diners,” said Dr. Stephanie Silvera, a professor of public health and epidemiology expert at Montclair State University.

The wait staff, she added, is at the highest risk with bubbles, as they would service people without masks in closed areas.

“The courteous thing to do when the wait staff comes in is to put a mask on for them, to protect those employees,” she said.

But the bubbles are hardly a cure-all solution for challenges restaurants face in the upcoming months. Some said that the bubbles are in short supply, and for many restaurants already in financial straits, buying them is just not feasible.

“It's nice if you can get them and afford them,” said Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association. “But I don't think it's going to be very widespread.”

Those that have bubbles say that they’re here to stay, despite the additional costs. Taylan said he is actually in his second year using them and Robertson said they open more opportunities as weather worsens. Her restaurant already purchased four more.

“We’re very happy with them,” she said. “They've extended our dining opportunities during the colder weather.”

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