HOBOKEN / JERSEY CITY, NJ - Hoboken's vibrant and vital hospitality industry is facing yet another setback, following a controversial executive order by Mayor Ravi Bhalla that pushes up closing time to midnight in the Mile Square City.

The move comes as Hoboken sees a steady uptick in COVID-19 cases. Seventeen new cases reported on Thursday represent the city's highest one-day total since April, supporting Governor Murphy's statement that, "the second wave of the coronavirus is no longer something off in the future. It is coming, and it is coming in now."

According to Mayor Bhalla, "During extensive contact tracing from the Hoboken Health Department, there have been COVID-19 cases linked to residents at various bars and restaurants in Hoboken. Contact tracing from other New Jersey health departments has linked COVID-19 cases from individuals from other cities to the bars and restaurants they visited in Hoboken as well."

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Specifics as to "the various bars and restaurants in Hoboken," linked to the spread of COVID have not been made available. Governor Murphy himself was recently sidelined after he came into contact with a member of his own staff at Pilsener Haus & Biergarten who later tested positive for the virus.

"With our Health Department reporting recent COVID-19 cases linked to bars and restaurants, I felt it was in the best interest of our community’s health and safety to limit higher-risk situations when COVID-19 is more likely to be spread," said Bhalla. "At the end of the day, we are still in the midst of a deadly pandemic when our schools are closing in-person learning, seniors remain self-isolated at home, and residents remain unemployed—all while cases are currently surging in New Jersey, and other countries like France and Germany are locking down completely. Like I’ve done from the beginning, I’m going to follow the science and the best expert advice we have available to us and do so proactively—like we did in March—before an even greater surge of cases affects our City."

Back in March, Hoboken was among the first in the nation to shut down bars and restaurants in the face of the COVID threat. As dining returned in June, the City worked to build out streateries to help accommodate more outdoor dining. Plans remain to assist with outdoor dining throughout the coming months, but with temperatures steadily decreasing, any further restrictions on indoor dining—which is already capped at 25% capacity—point to difficult times ahead for the city's already-struggling hospitality industry.

While midnight might seem fair to some, bar workers can attest that this stroke of the pen has significant financial ramifications. Traditionally, Hoboken's bars maintain a 2:00 a.m. closing time Sunday through Thursday, and a 3:00 a.m. closure on Friday and Saturday nights.

"For me, it's an 18% drop in weekly sales," said one bar owner, "that's on sales that are already 60% lower than the same time last year—meaning here comes another round of layoffs for people with no social safety net."

Bhalla defends the midnight decision, stating, "A number of people have mentioned that COVID-19 doesn’t just appear after midnight. This is 100% true. However, as health experts have consistently recommended, it’s about limiting higher-risk situations when COVID-19 is more likely to spread. With cases significantly rising in a second wave, we’re likely to see more transmission occurring indoors, which include bar settings. And unfortunately, as opposed to gyms or schools when face masks can be worn, face masks can’t be worn indoors when eating or drinking, making it a higher-risk environment—especially late at night with alcohol when it is only natural to let your guard down."

The owner of another bar/restaurant told TAPinto Hoboken, "What [Bhalla] did was now give an unfair advantage to all of our surrounding towns. If you want to go to dinner at 9:30, will you go to Hoboken knowing you’ll be rushed out by 12, or go to Jersey City or Weehawken and know you can relax? [He's] putting some nails in the coffin of an industry reeling and already on the brink of collapsing."

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop has stated clearly that he will not enact a similar curfew in his municipality.

"In March, Jersey City was amongst the first in the country and first in the state to put restrictions/curfews in place. That’s a fact. We aren’t going to do that again so quickly. When we did it in March there was a lot less info about the virus, how it is transmitted, risks, treatments, etc. So we acted quickly. We have more info today and I don’t see how a quick curfew bc of a spike will help as it isn’t as if you can only get COVID at night," said Fulop. "You can get it at a shopping center, supermarket, or a restaurant for lunch. The reality is we need to enforce the guidelines on 25% capacity, stick to a regional approach, do our contact tracing with [the State of] NJ, closely monitor hospitalizations and push more public awareness."

Fulop also cited a concern over increasing house parties—an issue that Hoboken is also working to tackle.

"Our extensive Contact Tracing efforts for JC show our current uptick isn’t related to businesses, but more so family/friends hosting in-home gatherings," said Fulop. "We are aligning our rules w/the Governor’s Office only now and not expanding. We are using our data to assist our already struggling businesses by adding testing and providing necessary supplies and support so that we can minimize further devastation with restrictions now."

Hoboken is not the only municipality in the region to enact a stricter curfew. Both Newark and Paterson have clamped down on their retail and hospitality hours. Meanwhile, New York City has maintained a midnight curfew since allowing reopening.

"I know the substantial impact this will have on our businesses and business owners, and that is certainly not lost upon me," said Bhalla. "Just like we did after the initial shutdown, we will continue to do everything we can to assist our businesses during these difficult times. We will also continue to monitor our infections, contact tracing results, and social distancing practices as we consider the public health implications of this decision over the next two weeks, at which point we will evaluate this decision."

Gregory Dell'Aquila of the Hoboken Business Alliance tells TAPinto Hoboken, "Nobody's happy about this decision, but we want to be proactive and do whatever we can to keep these bars open, rather than face another complete shutdown." Dell'Aquila adds, "We see this as a painful, but measured decision."

The City of Hoboken will allow all current outdoor cafes, parklets and streateries are to operate until midnight from Thursday through Saturday and 11 pm from Sunday through Wednesday, in an effort to create safer opportunities for patrons.

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