TRENTON, NJ -- Gov. Phil Murphy surprised restaurant owners who had been preparing for the return of indoor dining on Thursday, July 2, by announcing just four days before that indoor seating would be delayed indefinitely. 

Having spent money ordering food, retraining workers, and purchasing PPE and cleaning supplies, restaurant owners were justifiably upset when he postponed the restart. Andrea Mitchell of NBC News pressed Murphy on the subject during his appearance on Meet The Press.

Murphy said he sympathized with restaurant owners and called on the federal government to send more money to the states so that they could help restaurants.

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"Listen, we have nothing but sympathy for them. Believe me. It's why we need direct federal cash assistance to states so that we can help those restaurants and small businesses out," Murphy said. "But the choice is either we open inside or (based on the data that we saw, and  the lethality of this virus inside), we lose people."

"When you combine indoors, lack of ventilation, sedentary, close proximity. And by definition you have to take your mask off to eat, those are bad facts," Murphy added. "We're just not there yet. We'll get there, I hope. But we're not ready for it."

The governor has come under harsh criticism from the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, which issued a statement, after Murphy's reversal, that said his decision "will cause even more restaurants to fail."

In a phone interview with TAPintoSPF last week, CEO Marilou Halvorsen said restaurateurs were excited about reopening... and then their hopes were crushed.

"Adding insult to injury, they were spending money they didn't have on inventory," Halvorsen said. "About 40-45% of restaurants don’t have access to outdoor dining. An estimated 20-23% of independent restaurants closed before June. With this false start, it will go up."

"He is acting based on what he has seen (at some bars and restaurants that were not enforcing social distancing," she said. "Other things can reopen. Casinos can reopen. People sit close to each others in churches and synagogues.The only industry not being brought along is the restaurant industry." 

Halverson said members of her association have been calling her because they are "frustrated abd angry at the governor, and angry about the establishments that have not been following guidelines."

"We are concerned about the pandemic and saving lives, but this is creating tremendous strains on people who are trying to put food on their table for their families," Halverson said. "I’m all for slow and responsible reopening. We got to see this industry come along. We don’t take all the cars off the road when people don't obey traffic laws."

The restaurant association chief says that she has a plan of how to reopen.

"We have offered to have something implemented where you have to be seated to eat and drink with the people you came with," Halverson said. "The 'indefinite' timeframe is extremely concerning. What data is he looking at? In the beginning it was ICU beds so not to overrun hospitals. It was a smart move. Now it is based on what is happening in other states. There has to be a consistency."

"The casinos are open. We are not happy about it. People are sitting there, touching things,"Halverson said. "It doesn’t make sense how some things open, and others not. The restaurant industry is the state’s largest private sector employer. Of 350,000 restaurant employees in the state, 85% lost jobs and only 45% are being brought back."

Nick Zalokostas of Scotchwood Diner on Route 22 in Scotch Plains was among those who looked forward to the return of indoor dining. His establishment is among the 40-45% of restaurants that could not do outside dining (because Scotchwood's close proximity to the highway.

"We bought a lot of inventory. You cannot freeze tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and eggs," said Zalokostas, who, like many other restaurant owners, currently relies on curbside pickup and deliveries to generate revenue. "We have plenty of space to seat people six feet away from each other, and each booth is separated by plexiglass. I hope we can seat people indoors by the end of the summer."