FLEMINGTON, NJ - This week the Hunterdon County Board of Chosen Freeholders continued their advocacy for business activities and reopenings, in particular their desire for restaurant dining to resume with many safety precautions in place.

Scrutiny was given to recent moves by Gov. Phil Murphy’s directives and the concerns many share over the exponential increases in COVID-19 cases in other regions of the United States. At their July 7 meeting, Hunterdon County Freeholder Director Shaun C. Van Doren called out Murphy for his application of a “one-size-fits-all” policy for not permitting restaurants to offer indoor dining, noting that the concerning scene at bars and restaurants with crowds at the Jersey Shore is about as comparable to downtown districts and dining offered in Hunterdon County, especially in county hubs like Flemington and Clinton and the bridge crossing streets along the Delaware River as apples are comparable to gasoline.

“Imagine what 25 percent interior capacity is at Caesars Palace Atlantic City compared with 25 percent capacity at 55 Main in Flemington, if we’re worried about community spread of COVID-19,” Van Doren said.

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He detailed the process and outlook for Hunterdon restaurants.

“Last week, Deputy Freeholder Director Sue Soloway joined me in directing a request to Gov. Murphy that he change his last-minute to rescind the rules for indoor dining at 25 percent capacity at restaurants,” he said. “Our Freeholder Board fully supported Gov. Murphy’s initial decision, which according to the governor was based on the use of science and data to permit inside-venue dining at just 25 percent capacity while observing social distancing and face covering rules because that would be safely beginning the process of allowing restaurants and businesses to get back on their feet. The governor reversed this decision after viewing photographs of large groups of people, most without face coverings and standing shoulder-to-shoulder at bars at the New Jersey shoreline. As a result, he halted the plan for inside dining at 25 percent capacity, not just at those bars but everywhere in the state. Yet Gov. Murphy allowed casinos to reopen at 25 percent capacity.”

The Northwestern New Jersey region, according to Hunterdon County Health officials and in coordination with the freeholder boards of Warren County and Sussex County and their local officials, has lower COVID-19 case numbers. Hunterdon County Health Director Karen DeMarco, in providing a detailed report to the freeholders at their July 7 meeting, stated that since March, Hunterdon’s confirmed number of cases now stands at 1,088.

Van Doren noted that because of “substantially reduced participation” by Hunterdon County residents at the dual-county testing site at Raritan Valley Community College (shared and dually operated with Somerset County since it was set up in mid-April) plans have shifted. The operation can stop and county health employees will no longer be working there.

“The numbers of county residents going in for COVID-19 testing became too minimal to support our Hunterdon County Department of Health staff allocation at the RVCC site, so we ended our participation in the joint venture with Somerset County, and the freeholder board extends its thanks to the Somerset County Freeholder Board for its cooperation and support in making the joint testing site a success,” Van Doren said.

Van Doren said the offending businesses at the shore should have received the punishment instead of a blanket policy, essentially breaking the backs of restaurants, including many that are the heart of Hunterdon County’s small business communities.

“The governor punished all the restaurant owners who invested and prepared for their limited and indoor/outdoor openings for the July 4th holiday weekend because of irresponsible people at a few outside bars at the shore,” he said. “The state’s economy and our businesses, particularly small businesses, need to reopen. We understand that this needs to evolve with a prudent reopening, and the freeholders have supported and even called for small steps like curbside pickups, by-appointment shopping and other methods of bringing back businesses while observing social distancing.”  

The economic engine of Hunterdon County was ready for more restart initiatives, with small businesses well aware of regulations and needs for face coverings inside, and the new protocols that abound.

“Area businesses in Hunterdon that are reopening are following all the rules,” he said. “Pulling this 25 percent capacity back from restaurants going into the Independence Day holiday weekend was a mistake.”

The 25 percent interior capacity regulation is already seeing positive adherence in two key county venues, although in the public sector. In his update to his fellow Freeholders on July 7, Freeholder Zach Rich, the board’s liaison to the Hunterdon County Library, noted that, in accordance with the State of New Jersey Administrative Order 2020-15, the Hunterdon County Library’s north branch in Clinton and main branch in Flemington began their reopening July 6 with 25 percent capacity permitted, and with social distancing measures, extra cleaning regimens and plexiglass barriers.

“Physical distancing and face coverings will be required of all library staff and patrons per the state’s administrative orders, and branches are open from 9 a.m. through 2 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays with late hours,  until 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursday” he said. “But we’re finding out already that our staff and patrons are fully compliant with all the protections.”

Rich is also the board’s liaison to Hunterdon County’s Workforce Development Board. During the Tuesday board meeting, he noted that the county’s unemployment figures have reached more than 12,000.

“The past week saw unemployment claims reach 12,323 since March 21 when the pandemic/spike in COVID-19 cases caused massive shutdowns in the economy,” he said. “As a point of reference at the end of February, Hunterdon County had 2,200 people on unemployment. The number of new claims has slowed, and the limited reopenings of businesses has perhaps helped, but not helpful enough for 12,323 people. The pace needs to be picked up.”