WAYNE, NJ – On the morning of June 29, restauranteurs across Wayne and across the state were preparing for indoor dining on July 2.  It would be the first time these food establishments would be allowed to invite customers inside to dine in more than three months. Then Governor Murphy announced at his press conference that day that he was rescinding his order allowing indoor dining. The news came as a shock to an industry that was already struggling to stay afloat.

“I was absolutely ready,” said an enthusiastic Shlomo Rosen, the owner of the Gyro Grill located in the Ramapo Plaza Shopping Center off Valley Road and Hamburg Turnpike. “I had a couple of graduation parties scheduled with 20, 25 people. Now I have to cancel them,” he said.

“I bought food, I prepared, and I hired additional staff, now I canceled everything,” said Shlomo, his enthusiasm waning with the disappointing thought.

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When Murphy rescinded the order, it hurt the owners of Wayne’s newest restaurant even harder. Casa Don Manuel offers fine Mexican cuisine and is located in the old Paris Inn on Alps Road. The owners began planning their opening for two years, but were delayed because of difficulties in attaining their liquor license. Once they finally received it, they were in the midst of coronavirus pandemic with shutdown orders in place.

On June 16, Casa Don Manuel opened to little fanfare and took only orders for takeout. Currently, they are waiting for their permit from Wayne Township to offer outdoor dining.

It was the news that indoor dining was allowed that catapulted the owners of Casa Don Manuel into action. “We were so excited,” said Edelweis Avaolos, one of the owners. They began hiring staff, ordering food and preparing specials, then the Governor’s orders struck them down again.

“We were shocked,” she said.  “We had been telling our customers, and everyone was getting excited.  We started taking reservations; then we had to stop everything. It was upsetting.”

Like many restaurants, Casa Don Manuel and Gyro Grill had hired new staff, but the people they hired have no work to do, and so must go back to unemployment until the Governor decides once again to allow indoor dining.  This could be weeks or months. No one knows.

At the Taphouse Grille on French Hill Road, things are a little different.  They have their outdoor dining permit from the town and have been serving 30 to 40 people each night they’ve been open.  But this is still not enough.

“We were excited to get people into the restaurant and start to make some money again, instead of bleeding through our SBA loan to pay all of our bills,” said General Manager and Head Chef Erik Methven.

Methven knows that his restaurant will manage in the short run, but if things don’t open back up by this fall that’s when it will start to get tricky. “For us, we are mainly a party venue, so if I can’t be back to full capacity by October, November, December, that’s when the real hard times are going to come.”

He took a positive take on the matter and put things in good perspective. “As long as everyone is safe, that’s all that matters.  A restaurant is just a restaurant; lives are more important.”

Wayne Township has been expediting the process to provide permits for outdoor dining, but restaurants must provide a safe environment, and follow regulations set by the Health Department, Zoning Board and the Fire Bureau.

Mayor Chris Vergano said: “The Town Council and Administration have been doing what we can to make the process as easy as possible to support our local businesses. But we must make sure that our people remain safe in the process.  That’s our priority.”

The timing could have been a lot of worse. With warm summer nights ahead of us, outdoor dining is not only possible, but enjoyable and appreciated.  If this pandemic had begun later in the year, outdoor dining might not have been a choice. 

The COVID numbers in Wayne have remained low even with the slow re-opening of restaurants and retail stores and several large gatherings that happened in the past month. The Black Lives Matter protest brought close to 1,000 people together. The student-run Wayne Valley graduation ceremony brought close to 300 people together and the Township’s summer concert series attracted close to 200 people together last week.  Even with increased testing, the numbers remain low in town.

New Jersey’s COVID numbers have similarly not spiked with large group protests happening all over the state in the last five weeks.  If these numbers remain low, hopefully that will convince the Governor to allow controlled indoor dining and perhaps more restaurant owners can survive long enough to get back to stability and profit.