HAWTHORNE, NJ - Owners Linda and Michael Passaro have been running local eatery Primo Amore on Diamond Bridge Avenue for the last three and a half years. Having both come from families in the hospitality and restaurant industry, their dream of opening up their own family restaurant was realized once they took over Primo Amore. For the Passaros, it has been nothing short of fulfilling to be able to provide a space for families to create some of their happiest memories by celebrating events such as baptisms and engagements in their private rooms.
Like countless other small businesses in the country, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Passaro family was forced to shutter their doors. As his senior year effort, their 18 year old son raised money through a GoFundMe page in order to collect donations and serve front-line workers at the beginning of the pandemic. The Passaros ended up serving over 800 meals to nearby hospitals including Valley Hospital, Hackensack University Hospital, Holy Name Medical Center, and many others.
When outdoor dining was permitted through Executive Order 150, providing in-person service outdoors in accordance with CDC guidelines, many restaurants were able to reopen and regain their dedicated patrons. Not all restaurants, however, have the ability to provide an area large enough to accommodate more than a sidewalk's worth of spaced out tables for diners. Primo Amore was one of those establishments, and outdoor dining has not been enough to keep their business afloat. Linda expressed her frustrations with the outdoor dining area on Diamond Bridge Avenue between Lafayette and Grand Avenue, a section blocked off to traffic on weekends. "Outdoor dining was a nice gesture that works for some, but not all. There aren't a lot of options here, and seating 20 people outside on a street that everyone speeds down hasn't been ideal," Linda said. "I was told I could set up tables in the coned off area, but would have to send my servers up and down a hill, over train tracks, to provide services to patrons. That just wouldn't work."
As June came to a close, neighboring states such as Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut began releasing guidelines on reopening facilities such as restaurants. At that time, Governor Murphy had announced that indoor dining could reopen before the July 4th holiday. Linda and Michael moved quickly to prepare the restaurant and its employees for the reopening, purchasing hygiene barriers, dividers, and food, and also spending time training their employees on all the updated health and safety protocols. Murphy then quickly reversed this decision after numerous restaurants had already begun investing in the preparation for reopening, citing worsening COVID-19 numbers. As a result, not only did Linda have to break the news to their employees who were eager to return to work, but the many customers who booked parties and events. Linda and Michael were heartbroken.
On September 1, 2020, Murphy signed Executive Order 183 which stated that food or beverage establishments would be allowed to offer more dining options. Restaurants would have to comply with the updated requirements instated, including, "Limit the number of patrons in indoor areas to 25 percent of the food or beverage establishment’s indoor capacity, excluding the food or beverage establishment’s employees."
Linda expressed her strong feelings on Murphy's decision to reopen indoor dining at a 25 percent capacity limit. "We received zero rent relief for the entirety of the pandemic, and Murphy expects us to run our business on just 25 percent indoor capacity?" She went on to explain how Murphy 's decisions have been frustrating. "There have been no benchmarks or plans provided to small business owners. There has been no logic behind his decisions within his executive orders."
Being a mother of a child with a weakened immune system, Linda takes the health and safety of others to heart, making it a mission to provide the best environment for her patrons to enjoy a meal with their family and friends. She says understands how important it is to take safety protocol seriously, and is confident that with a 50 percent capacity limit, not only will she be able to continue to protect the public, but their small business would be able to finally break even again.
In New Jersey, she said, there has been no galvanized force to stand up for the rights of restaurant owners who have been gravely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. "The mayor has been silent. There is no Chamber of Commerce to unite [restaurant owners] on this bipartisan issue," she said. "There's been no financial support. No bailout plan. We are going month to month with our lease because Murphy doesn't want to open restaurants." Linda decided to join James Mermigis in the New Jersey Restaurant Owners Class Action Lawsuit and fight for what she believes is right within her industry.
Mayor Richard Goldberg said, "Both restaurants were offered the opportunity to have tables on the closed portion of Diamond Bridge Avenue and both declined."
Hawthorne Chamber of Commerce President Rob Meier said, "The Hawthorne Chamber of Commerce supports all of its members during this very difficult time, especially the wide variety of small businesses that are the backbone of our township. The Chamber and its network of volunteers have been working tirelessly to provide its members with the latest information and important resources to help them through these last six months."
Meier acknowledged the challenges posed by the pandemic. "We still need to adhere to safety guidelines that have been implemented by the State. We unquestionably don’t want to see another shutdown or an increase in our local infection numbers so we must stay on this course and continue to practice proper safety guidelines. Our heart goes out to the many establishments that had to, unfortunately, close their doors permanently. As you know, this pandemic has crushed the hospitality industry especially hard, so we all need to do our best to support them and continue to shop local. Now is a critical time to support our local businesses, so we can get back to work to make Hawthorne strong."
James Mermigis feels very strongly about advocating for restaurant owners in New Jersey who he feels have been wronged by Murphy's decisions. "Many restaurants have closed their doors forever. Many restaurants lost thousands when he pulled back indoor dining on July 2nd. We must put an end to this now. 25 percent capacity is not enough!" Mermigis stated in his flyer to other restaurant owners in New Jersey.
While Linda does not believe that there will be any governmental payments for the 7 months of lost revenue, she does hope for immediate action to take place. "Murphy needs to provide funding and grants for the hospitality industry. He needs to open restaurants at 50 percent capacity for indoor dining immediately," she said. "He needs to finally respond publicly to our concerns, use rational thinking and offer us answers."
She shared that there are many other restaurant owners who fear retaliation for joining this class action lawsuit, worried that they will lose their liquor licenses for speaking out against Murphy's orders. Mermigis's goal is to unite restaurant owners across the state and fight back. He is allowing for owners to anonymously join this suit so that they feel protected, free of any retribution from the government by staying a silent supporter. Any restaurant owner who is interested in joining the New Jersey Restaurant Owners Class Action Lawsuit may contact Mermigis directly at 516-353-0075 or email Kim@MermigisLaw.com to learn more.