SOMERVILLE, NJ - The borough is making a second attempt to shut down the state highway that bisects the downtown shopping and restaurant district to create a pedestrian boulevard for shopping and outdoor dining from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays.
A resolution will be voted on at Monday's virtual Borough Council meeting, and sent to Trenton for review by officials from the state Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over Route 28.
An earlier effort to have the NJDOT shut down the state highway on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings was rejected by state DOT Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, last month.
She came to Somerville at the invitation of state Sen. Kip Bateman, whose office is within walking distance of the downtown area, for a first-hand look. She offered a compromise to ban parking on Main Street to allow restaurants to expand their seating beyond the curb in to the parking spaces in front of their restaurant.
The borough, however, was unwilling to give up the convenience of Main Street parking, according to Borough Clerk Kevin Sluka.
However, they were not willing to give up on the idea of serving meals on Main Street, revising the shutdown proposal to cover one day instead of three, hoping that will be more palpable for the DOT.
"Saturday is the ideal day to do this," said Kevin Sluka, borough clerk.
The borough will also remind the NJDOT that there is precedent to close the state highway to allow crowds to gather. Each year the NJDOT grants approvals to shut down Main Street for firemen's parades, street fairs, the annual St. Patrick's Day parade, the three-day Memorial Weekend Tour of Somerville international bicycle race and the September Central New Jersey Jazz Festival.
Somerville Police set up barricades and detour traffic to Veterans Memorial Drive, which parallels Main Street, according to Sluka.
Bateman, a frequent critic of Gov. Phil Murphy's COVID-19 executive orders, said he is going to re-visit the proposal with Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the chief of staff to Murphy on Monday, or with the governor himself.
"We're going to go back to the commissioner," Bateman said. "I thought she listened and understood our frustration, and she didn't dismiss the concept outright, she did offer to compromise. We need to do everything we can for small restaurants."
The second request is also in response to Murphy rescinding his executive order last week that would have permitted restaurants to serve indoors at 25 percent capacity.
Murphy has not indicated when the indoor dining ban will end, effectively cutting off a desperately needed revenue stream for the hard-pressed restaurant community. He rescinded the order after seeing photos and video of crowded New Jersey shore bars where masks were not being worn and social distancing was not being practiced.
"When we received the denial, it was around the same time that we were anticipating opening for indoor dining," said Natalie Pineiro, executive director of the Downtown Somerville Alliance merchants organization. "We were ready to acquiesce; we were willing to put the plan on the back burner, but now, with the announcement that indoor dining was on hold indefinitely, we had to reevaluate," she continued. "We need to continue to support our restaurants. We had to figure out what to do to keep the hope alive. We decided to revisit the application with a more specific plan."
This is the text of the resolution that will be considered by the Borough Council Monday night:
"REQUESTING THAT THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION AUTHORIZE CLOSING OF ROUTE 28 BETWEEN NORTH DOUGHTY AND GROVE STREET ON EVERY SATURDAY BETWEEN 10:00 A.M. AND 10:00 P.M.
WHEREAS, indoor dining was to resume on July 2, 2020 with limitations; and
WHEREAS, many restaurants in Somerville Borough made significant preparations to open as per State of New Jersey Guidance; and
WHEREAS, Governor Murphy postponed the re-opening of restaurants citing recent scenes from expanded outdoor bars and restaurants not located in Somerville Borough or Somerset County; and
WHEREAS, the Borough of Somerville in conjunction with the Downtown Somerville Alliance, Inc., requests the closure of Route 28 on every Saturday between North Doughty and Grove Street from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. to allow merchants to utilize sidewalk space and a portion of the roadway to provide for greater social distancing for shoppers and pedestrians:
BE IT RESOLVED, by the Borough Council of the Borough of Somerville, in the County of Somerset, State of New Jersey directs the Municipal Clerk to forward this Resolution to the Commission of the Department of Transportation and authorizes the Clerk-Administrator in cooperation with the Executive Director of the Downtown Somerville Alliance, Inc., to complete and submit any necessary paperwork requesting that Route 28 between North Doughty and Grove Street be closed every Saturday from 10:00 a.m.to 10:00 p.m. Adopted by Borough Council on July 6, 2020
Sluka said the premise of the first proposal was flawed.
"We didn't have a specific plan; our thought was we would develop a plan once we got the OK," Sluka said.
"But now that he hasn't opened up the 25 percent occupancy, that changes the conversation," he added.
Bateman notes that Murphy's executive orders are uneven and confusing.
"Why can one stroll in an indoor big box store for an indefinite amount of time, yet they cannot dine at a local restaurant on Main Street? Restaurants that are able to open for outdoor dining are only taking in a small fraction of their regular revenue. Every day they are prevented from getting closer to normal operations, more local eats will go out of business," Bateman said.
“Small and family-owned restaurants, taverns, and bars are on the brink of bankruptcy. We can and should trust our local restaurants and taverns to open safely with social distancing precautions and frequent sanitation measures in place," he added. "I urge the governor to allow indoor dining to resume to ensure our local pubs and eateries can stay in business and save livelihoods.”
Murphy pointed to packed crowds at outdoor bars and restaurants -- with people not wearing masks and ignoring social distancing -- as reasons for postponing the return of indoor dining indefinitely.
"We have been cautious throughout every step of our restart. We’ve always said that we would not hesitate to hit pause if needed to safeguard public health. This is one of those times. After COVID-19 spikes in other states driven by, in part, the return of indoor dining, we have decided to postpone indoor dining indefinitely," said Murphy, who announced 18 new COVID-19 related deaths and downward trends of key measures on Monday.
"We have enormous sympathy (for small business owners) but the alternative is worse," Murphy said. "Keeping up the fight is even more important now to prevent us from backsliding."
“We have seen spikes in other states driven, in part, by the return of patrons to indoor dining establishments, where they are seated, and without face coverings,” he said. “We are also moved to take this step because of what we have seen in some establishments across the state.”
Restaurant owners in Somerville, some of whom met and spoke with Murphy during the governor's walking tour of the borough last September, agree with Bateman.
"I'm just angry about the whole thing," said Pat Mannion, owner of Mannion's Pub & Restaurant, 150 W. Main St. "Just because he saw pictures of a few bars at the shore with kids standing around in crowds drinking without masks, we're all getting hurt for that, it's just not right."
"We do things the right way, we're following the protocols, most of the restaurants are doing the right thing, it's just a shame.
"Go after those places, fine them, close them down, but don't penalize restaurants that are doing the right thing," he added.
"Malls are open, so what's the difference - there is no difference. You've got thousands of people walking around," Mannion added
At the other end of Main Street is Verve Restaurant, Bar & Bistro, voted Best Bar in New Jersey in an online contest in 2019; it was one of Murphy's first stops during his walking tour of the downtown restaurant and shopping district last year, where he stopped for a brief chat with owner Rick St. Pierre.
"You come from a Murphy data-driven, lower the curve model to I've seen what they did down at the shore, it's going to increase, no one is allowed to open," St. Pierre said. "His decision was not based on data, it was based on perception. What he has done is taken away every municipality's right to govern itself and its establishments and dictates for everyone. That is wrong, wrong," he added.
"Would 25 percent help us? No, not really, but the reality is things have turned in the right direction,," St. Pierre said. "Now what you've done is stop the flow of energy of promise -'we're here to protect you from yourself,' " that is the major issue."
St. Pierre added, "You don't make decisions as a leader based on the least common denominator. God forbid if he sees something in al fresco he doesn't like, will we all be forced to close for that too? Really?
Iris Frank is one of the owners of Village Brewing, which has been open for one year in the center of downtown.
Having to rely solely on outdoor dining places a huge burden on all restaurants, Frank said.
"Outdoor presents challenges," she said. "We understand the governor is being cautious, but all of the extra effort to provide an outdoor dining experience is expensive and not necessarily profitable," she added.
"Almost all of the businesses on Main Street have had to incur PPE I(personal protection equipment) expenses and make accommodations to create a comfortable outdoor dining experience, having to purchase chairs, tables, umbrellas, tents, planters.
"And, we're all subject to the weather," she continued. "That's a real burden. We watch the weather almost hourly..
"You also have to remember that we are all paying rent for an indoor space we cannot use and now we've been asked to expand and spend more money to utilize an outdoor space that is very limited in what you can do.
"The money I have to spend to accommodate outdoor dining is another level of rent, it's really tough," she added.