WAYNE, NJ – On June 29, with just three days’ notice, Governor Murphy rescinded his order to allow indoor dining in New Jersey. It was a sobering moment for many restauranteurs across the state who were surprised with the last-minute order.
This weekend, Murphy discussed his reasons why he chose to rescind the order during his appearance on Meet The Press. TAPinto reached out to the CEO of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, Marilou Halvorsen for her opinion on the matter.
"Listen, we have nothing but sympathy for them,” said Murphy of restaurant owners. “Believe me. It's why we need direct federal cash assistance to states so that we can help those restaurants and small businesses out. 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."
At his June 30 press conference, Murphy explained that it was “knucklehead behavior” and disturbing images of crowded bars in New Jersey where patrons were not wearing face coverings or social distancing coupled with increasing numbers in other parts of the country where indoor drinking and dining had been permitted that informed his decision to rescind the order.
"This is not how we beat back COVID-19. This is how we invite COVID-19," he said. "This is how flare-ups happen. This how you risk turning your community into a hot spot."
In a phone interview with TAPinto 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 other 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 and angry at the governor, and angry at 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 casinos are open, and 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."
The state’s guidelines for indoor dining included: all employees wearing masks, mandating regular hand washing, tables set six feet apart, only family members could sit together at tables and restaurants were limited to 25% capacity.
Murphy has not announced a timetable for the opening of indoor dining.
"The 'indefinite' timeframe is extremely concerning,” Halverson said. “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."
Gov. Phil Murphy and Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said Monday during the state’s coronavirus press briefing that the rate of transmission or “Rt” is over 1.0 for the first time in 10 weeks. The last two days saw an Rt of 1.03 — meaning every new additional positive COVID-19 case is leading to at least one more. Because of this, New Jersey can find itself in Phase Two for longer than expected and indoor dining will be put off for even longer.
Jon "Ferris" Meredith contributed to this article