NEW JERSEY — It’s seven in the morning and Jimmy Greberis is in his element.

Between taking phone orders and watching over the sizzling grill, the owner of the Summit Diner prepares for the breakfast rush, a familiar routine in his decades in the diner business. But for the first Sunday in nearly half a year, he’s allowing customers back inside to sit at the vinyl stools and booths inside one of New Jersey’s oldest diners. 

“It’s great to be back,” he said behind a blue face mask. “We don't need to tell people they can't come in anymore, which is nice.”

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Greberis was one of thousands of restaurant owners in the Garden State reopening Friday for indoor dining for the first time since March, when the coronavirus pandemic first hit New Jersey. And with businesses allowed to have 25 percent indoor occupancy, it has been a welcome step towards normalcy for restaurateurs — even as they grapple with changes caused by the pandemic.

In Kenilworth, Attilio Guarino, the owner of Ava's Kitchen & Bar, described having “more sanitizer you could imagine,” as well as having hosts sanitize the restaurant once every 20 minutes. But the restaurateur who made headlines in August for his ultimatum to open indoor dining expressed concern that 25 percent occupancy may not go far enough.

“If you go to a restaurant and they’re not fully packed on a weekend, they can't sustain their business,” said Guarino. “Every restaurant needs to be packed at full capacity on weekends [to sustain themselves].”

The New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association recently predicted that 35 percent of the state’s 20,000 restaurants could permanently close due to financial shortfalls from the pandemic, up from 10 percent in March.

Guarino also worried about the possibility of Gov. Murphy rolling back indoor dining again, which he said could be fatal for the industry.

“If Governor Murphy thinks he's going to pull the plug on us again a second time, we're going to continue to stay open,” he said, referring to when the governor announced restaurants would reopen in June, then canceling the reopening. The decision cost Guarino nearly $10,000 in ingredients and materials, he said. “We ain't shutting down this time.”

At a Sept. 4 press conference, the governor made clear that he would penalize those who broke state mandates. 

“Let this be a warning to everyone out there — the limits we have placed on capacities and the public health protocols we have put in place are not kind suggestions, they are mandated,” Gov. Murphy said. “They are required. We will not tolerate any violations, and we will not be afraid to come down hard and make an example of those who think the rules don’t apply to them.”

Even as restaurants reopen for indoor seating, some explained that 25 percent just isn’t worth it. 

“At 25 percent capacity, we would have seating for about eight people,” said Robert Austin Cho, owner of Kimchi Smoke Barbecue in Bergen County. “It really doesn't make any sense to go through all that for eight people.”

Cho, whose restaurant is designed for takeout orders, also said that he did not feel confident in having people dine inside. Until it was “100 percent safe inside,” he said, he would rather play it safe.

“I don't think it’s equitable on our side [to have people eat inside],” he said. “People aren't eating with the mask on. It feels a little weird. I'm not totally comfortable with the whole thing.”

But for restaurants that aren’t used to takeout and outdoor dining, the 25 percent indoor capacity is a “big step” Greberis said.  

Greberis said he missed the connection of chatting with his customers, something strained by outdoor-only dining and face masks. But like Guarino, he has concerns for the industry — that 25 percent may not go far enough, the uncertainty of the winter months when outdoor dining may not be feasible and mounting expenses for takeout and cleaning supplies. 

But for now, he said, it was a welcome start.

“We’re glad to be back,” he said.

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