N.J. restaurant owners just breathed a massive sigh of relief

Posted Dec 11, 2020

Restaurants around New Jersey held their collective breath on Friday after the news came down that New York City would once again end indoor dining, one day after Pennsylvania announced the same measure.

Wondering if New Jersey would follow suit, Marilou Halvorsen was more than anxious.

“Oh yeah,” Halvorsen, the president of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality, said with nervous laughter. “My heart stopped.”

But Halvorsen and the NJRHA got assurance from Gov. Phil Murphy’s office on Thursday night that New Jersey would not be following the lead of its neighboring states. Despite COVID-19 cases skyrocketing across the state, Murphy announced Friday restaurants would be “staying with what we got” and still be allowed to serve customers indoors at the same 25% capacity clip that has been in place since he reopened indoor dining in September.

After months of relying on takeout and delivery only, followed by a summer reliant on outdoor dining, shutting down indoor dining could be devastating for an industry already teetering on collapse. With winter weather all but ending outdoor dining and a much-needed stimulus plan still far from a reality, an indoor dining ban would essentially be a shutdown, restaurant owners told NJ Advance Media on Friday.

“Without that financial support, a comprehensive timeline to plan for, or literally any trust that the people of our state can handle the task at hand of seriously social distancing to flatten the curve quickly, it’d absolutely be a deathblow,” said Laura Brahn, owner of popular Asbury Park brunch spot Cardinal Provisions.

Ehren Ryan, owner of New American restaurant Common Lot in Millburn, was confident Murphy wouldn’t shut down indoor dining, believing he would have done it by now if that was on the table. He also thinks New Jersey indoor dining is safer than New York indoor dining.

“I think the main difference between New York and New Jersey is the size of the restaurants in New York,” Ryan said. “New York is right on top of each other. You’re talking 1,000, 1,500, 2,000-square foot restaurants, with capacity at like 500 people or whatever. And so they jam them in. So their 25% capacity is a lot tighter. Their restaurants are so small compared to the majority of the of New Jersey restaurants.”

New York restaurants are also better suited for takeout, Ryan says. And even though Common Lot has just launched a takeout menu, he doesn’t think New Jersey restaurants would make it without some sort of dining.

“If you shut down (indoor dining), you’re shutting down the restaurant itself. Because most of them wouldn’t be able to cope just with take out,” Ryan said. “I know, we would have to think long and hard about what we would do.”

Halvorsen says business is down as much as 60% for some restaurants, with cold weather and high case numbers keeping people out of restaurants. Many restaurants are staying open simply to make sure their staffs get paid.

“I think this is just (Murphy having a) slow approach,” Halvorsen said. “What you’re doing with the 25%, though, is keeping those jobs as restaurant workers employed.”

Anthony Bucco, the owner of acclaimed Ridgewood Italian restaurant Felina, knows many restaurant owners want to keep serving indoors even at reduced capacity. But he wonders if shutting indoor down would actually help restaurants in the longterm.

If Murphy shut down indoor dining, Bucco thinks some restaurants would have a better chance of renegotiating leases and mortgages than if they’re operating at 25% capacity at a time when there’s little enthusiasm to eat in a restaurant.

“I say this with all due respect, it may actually help a business,” Bucco said. “It takes away the operational costs, and really just puts the emphasis on maintaining their mortgage and maintaining their monthly rent payments, versus having to cover cost of supplies and materials and chemicals, and then payroll...so in some ways, I think that this could be more of a lifeline if the industry is shut down.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2020-12-12 03:38:08 -0800