TRENTON, NJ - State Sen. Kip Bateman, R-16th is not happy that Gov. Phil Murphy made a unilateral decision Monday to keep indoor restaurants closed indefinitely; he provided no timetable as to when indoor dining -- even at reduced capacity -- would resume.
Indoor dining was originally scheduled to reopen on July 2 at 25 percent occupancy.
“I am disappointed with Governor Murphy’s unilateral mandate to halt the reopening of indoor dining, particularly because many restaurants are struggling to survive. 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?
Bateman's district office in Somerville is within walking distance of the downtown restaurant district, where most restaurants have turned to outdoor dining and are continuing with takeout and curbside service to keep the doors open.
“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.
"Twenty-five percent is not going to make anyone big money but it's a start in the right direction, now we're going to go big-time backwards; I'd been ordering more food and beer, we were going to have a big bang on Thursday (July 2) but now it's going to be a big nothing.
"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 municipalities' 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.
"My reaction is that it's disappointing. I see the governor's point of view, he's trying to be preventative with his measures, unfortunately it's a few bad apples that have ruined it for the rest of us," she said.
"As a business, we're trying to pivot and make the best of it, We're lucky enough to have the back parking lot so we can expand our outdoor dining," she added.
Village Brewing has erected three 20x20 tents in the parking lot behind the brewery, enough for 20 tables and seats for 120 people. She said that all health and safety protocols are being followed - sani-stations have been installed at all exits, entrances. service stations, restrooms, and the kitchen.
"We've even gone so far is to place little plaques on the tables once they've been sanitized sp people know it's clean. We've got social distancing posters everywhere and our tables are placed ten feet apart. Everyone is made to understand that if you are here you must remain seated.
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. It seems like in the last few years it's getting like Florida; you'll get a rain shower sometime during the day.
"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 tin 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.
"Like I said, we're lucky to have the tents and the outdoor space, but a lot of Main Street restaurants don't have that luxury. My heart bleeds for them" she said of her fellow restaurant owners. "They don't have what we have. I see the worry on their faces, as I do on mine."