EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - Following Governor Phil Murphy’s cancelation of a dining reopening in New Jersey, many local restaurants are unhappy with their current circumstances. Indoor dining would have resumed Thursday, July 2, with restaurants having been allowed to operate at 25% of their normal capacity. Murphy cited repeated instances of “knucklehead behavior” throughout the state as his reasoning for canceling the order, stating that instances of ignoring social distancing guidelines at various bars caused him to rescind the opening date.
Murphy stated that he would be cracking down on places that do not properly follow outdoor dining guidelines, going so far as to compare scenes in New Jersey to the now-infamous picture of the crowded Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. He says that the reason for the sudden reversal of his decision is that he does not want New Jersey to have to go into a shutdown again like other states have.
But his decision is proving less than popular with restaurant owners all over the state. While many have adapted to the changing conditions, allowing for more takeout, curbside delivery, and outdoor dining where it was not possible before, restaurant owners and their employees still struggle to pay the bills.
“The New Jersey Restaurant Association, which I happen to be a board member of, predicted that with a prolonged indoor dining ban, 20% of restaurants will not survive,” Said Spiro Hadjiyerou, the owner of East Brunswick’s Colonial Diner. “The expense of trying to pay rent and real estate when you’re only bringing in 25% of your revenue is a lot”
The majority of NJ restaurants are taking similar measures to protect the health and safety of their customers to other businesses that are allowed to be open - employees are required to wear masks and gloves, and social distancing is strongly encouraged. Yet their business has been limited to outdoor dining and takeout only, while other businesses are still allowed to operate indoors.
Hadjiyerou said of the situation “I have a section with five booths on each side - 10 altogether. With six-foot spacing, I could only open three. Which I would be perfectly happy to do. But because of the bar situation - which was really bad - we can’t do that. Why punish restaurants for that? It just makes no sense how you open one sector and you don’t open the others.”
Restaurants have been forced to spend a good deal of money in order to adapt to the current situation. Many ordered food in preparation for the opening of indoor dining, only to find it wasted when Murphy rescinded his statements. Others, such as Brunswick Grove, are now having to build outdoor seating where there was none before. “We’re hoping we can get more business that way so guests won’t have to sit in a parking lot,” said Brian Goldstein, Brunswick Grove’s owner.
Critics of Murphy’s decision are pointing out its hypocrisy - that regularly-sanitized restaurants are not allowed to serve clients inside while businesses that are arguably more dangerous have opened without the same scrutiny. Shopping malls reopened indoor shopping mere hours before Murphy’s announcement. “These policies are not consistent,” Hadjiyerou commented. “To say that casinos can open but not restaurants is really a stab in the back. How is a family eating together less sanitary than people sitting at poker tables together? We just want him to be consistent and fair to all of us, and to give us an idea of when we can reopen.”
Goldstein, meanwhile, relayed a personal story. “At Home Depot, no one socially distances. There're hundreds or thousands of people not socially distancing, touching everything... I’ve never seen Home Depot as busy as it’s been over the last three months. And at-home recreational supply stores like pool supply stores have been open the whole time as essential services. They’re allowed to feed their families, but we’re not.”
At the moment, it is unclear when indoor dining will be available again. The future remains uncertain for restaurant owners and people who work for them as chefs or waiters. Said Hadjiyerou, “We’re one of the state’s biggest employers, and we’re in a lot of trouble. Everyone says we’re all in this together, but it sure doesn’t seem that way.”