Can N.J. restaurants open at 50% capacity? One group has a plan.

Posted May 11, 2020

Francis Schott knows he’s one of the lucky ones.

The restaurant he co-owns, Stage Left Steak in New Brunswick — one of New Jersey’s premiere steakhouses — has successfully made the transition to takeout during coronavirus. To boot, the restaurant’s wine store is thriving. His debt is manageable and things are going well enough that he won’t consider reopening his dining room until he can do so at 75 or 80 percent capacity.

But Schott knows not everyone can wait that long. Thousands of Garden State eateries that have now been shuttered for two months due to the pandemic are anxiously awaiting word on when they can reopen, no matter the capacity limit.

The New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, of which Schott is a board member, has crafted a plan to get things moving.

The NJRHA, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting and advocating for restaurants and those in the industry, has a plan to reopen restaurants as soon as later this month at 50 percent capacity — a percentage many restaurant owners say is the threshold for profitability. The plan has been submitted to Murphy’s office and discussed with several politicians, Schott said, but there is so far no concrete timetable for its implementation.

“We would really like to have something open before Memorial Day,” NJRHA President Marilou Halvorsen said. “Obviously you have the health care concerns, but you do have the economic small business concerns.”

The NJRHA is working with government officials on it its detailed 7-page plan, which calls for three stages. Stage 1 is the current situation with only takeout and delivery. Stage 2 would notably require:

• Restaurant capacity reduced to 50 percent, with diner and bar seating at least six feet apart.

• Seating limited to no more than eight guests per table.

• Tables, chairs and bars cleaned and sanitized after every use

• No customers with a fever or cough permitted in the restaurant.

• All guest-facing staff to wear face masks, and customers would be welcome to wear them but not required to.

Part of the plan includes a somewhat idyllic “industry promise,” which pledges restaurants will do everything they can to stay safe, while asking customers to promise they won’t come to restaurants if they have been exposed to COVID-19 or have any symptoms. Halvorsen says that while some restaurants may check temperatures at entrances, mandating such checkpoints would raise privacy concerns.

Stage 3 would would remove all capacity limits while still maintaining some safeguards, with a targeted date of July 1. Such a timetable appears challenging, considering Gov. Phil Murphy has not yet applied any hard dates to reopening non-essential businesses. Meanwhile, case and death rate continue to increase throughout New Jersey: As of May 11, more than 138,000 residents have been sickened by COVID-19 and more than 9,200 have died.

“I don’t think a restaurant could right now, even if they wanted to, really open at 100 percent capacity,” Halvorsen said. "I think the phased-in approach works for both the safety standpoint and just from the business standpoint.

Recommendations from the CDC, global healthcare company EcoLab and the National Restaurant Association were all taken into account when crafting the plan, Halvorsen said.

The NJRHA met with several state senators on Thursday, including state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, to discuss the plan. Schott says the plan was well-received but there is no word on if it has been accepted.

“We’ve been really careful about not just throwing together some feel-good plan. This plan is a result of weeks of consulting with everybody. And when presented to the governor’s office, to Senator Sweeney and to other senators and assembly people, they like it, they know that it’s serious," Schott said. “People don’t often speak well of government. I have to say... they’re listening. People are asking us how they can help and what’s the best way to go about this.”

There are now 24 states allowing some sort of dine-in service at restaurants, all with varying capacity restrictions. Indiana, Iowa and Mississippi are at 50 percent while Texas and Florida are allowing merely one-quarter of their usual dining room crowds. Some states are allowing only outdoor seating with set distances between tables, while South Dakota never enforced any social distancing dining rules at all.

But none of those states have been hit as hard as New Jersey. New Jersey is second to only New York and at least double every other state except Massachusetts in total COVID-19-related deaths. Plans that worked elsewhere might not fly in the Garden State.

For example, if New Jersey were to follow Florida and Texas and allow only 25 percent capacity, many restaurants said they will keep their dining rooms closed until capacity allowances increased.

The restaurant industry has already been decimated by the pandemic — botching the reopening could be the final nail in the coffin for many restaurants that have gone into the red over the past two months.

And while relying on takeout and delivery isn’t ideal, it can be much cheaper than running a dining room.

“Most expenses of a fine dining restaurant are the variable costs,” Schott said. “So it’s linen and staff and stuff, and when you shut down the dining room those costs just go away.”

Ehren Ryan, the head chef at Common Lot in Millburn, has kept his restaurant completely closed during the crisis. His dining room won’t reopen for anything less than 50 percent.

"Anything less is stupid for me personally, it wouldn’t be worth opening,” Ryan said. “I wouldn’t be able to hire any staff. I’m a 60-seat restaurant. I’m gonna do what, have suppliers bring me food for 15 people? It’s also not fair to my staff that I’ve had to lay off. If I’m at 25 percent capacity, I’m only going to hire like one or two people.”

Anthony Bucco is the owner of Felina, a well-regarded Italian restaurant in Ridgewood. He closed his doors on March 16, and also isn’t offering takeout. As bad as he wants to reopen, he won’t even consider it at the 25 percent clip.

“No chance,” Bucco said. “I couldn’t really survive, just even from the standpoint of overhead. It’s actually more logical from an economic standpoint for me to be closed than open at 25 percent.”

Halvorsen says the ball is in the governor’s court and they’re anxiously waiting for a response — something they want sooner than later because implementing the plan will take weeks of preparation.

“Everyone thinks the plan is really credible. If they have any concerns, bring it up. I don’t want to have to wait two weeks to hear that they have an issue with something,” Halvorsen said. “If I’m missing something, we’re happy to go back and look at it, but time is of the essence.”

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment