Asbury Park Permits Restaurants to Open for Indoor Dining, Then Reverses Decision

Feelings were mixed among restaurant owners. Some feared fines and further consequences, others were ready to open their doors to diners. Then the attorney general stepped in.

The bar at Bonney Read, one of the restaurants planning to open for indoor dining next week. Photo courtesy of Bonney Read

Update: As of the evening of Friday, June 12, the city of Asbury Park is no longer advising or allowing restaurants to open for indoor service yet, as ordered by the results of a lawsuit the attorney general brought against the city for defying Governor Murphy’s executive order. No Asbury Park restaurants we spoke to that hoped to open indoors on June 15 did so.

On Wednesday night, Laura Brahn, owner of Cardinal Provisions on Bangs Avenue in Asbury Park, tuned into a virtual city council meeting hoping she would hear that her restaurant would be able to expand outdoor seating into the streets.

What she heard instead completely caught her off guard.

“We’d heard about open streets. They were switching gears and I thought I was just going listen to a few nitpicky things and that would be it,” she says. “Then deputy mayor [Amy Quinn] brought up their amendment to the outdoor dining rule, where they’ve decided that they’re going to be allowing 25 percent capacity or 50 people, whichever comes first, indoors. I thought I heard it wrong. I didn’t think it could be real.”

Part of the ReOPEN Asbury Park: Business & Community Recovery Strategy plan, the unanimous vote by Asbury City Council allows local restaurants to reopen their doors for limited indoor dining as soon as Monday, June 15—even without the green light from Governor Murphy. The decision came as a shock to many restaurateurs in Asbury Park, leaving them with just days to decide what to do.

That decision is complicated by the potential repercussions restaurants could face for defying Murphy’s orders. Governor Murphy remained vague about what those would be when he addressed Asbury Park’s move in a press conference on Thursday afternoon, but said that while the local restaurants that have taken a hit during the statewide shutdown have his “enormous sympathy,” his executive order will be continue to be enforced. Murphy said the actions of Asbury Park “are inconsistent with my executive order. We cannot have one set of rules for one town and another for another town. We move as one state, guided by science and data. Period.”

A statement from the city of Asbury Park states, “While Council has approved indoor food and beverage service with restrictions, businesses should be aware this could be overruled by the State of New Jersey. Since Governor Murphy has not yet allowed indoor dining, participating businesses could be considered in violation of Executive Orders and may be subject to fines by the State of New Jersey.”

The news left downtown Asbury eateries with mixed feelings.

To some, the city’s move is a step in the right direction, but not enough. “Restaurants are sitting here begging for crumbs,” says James Avery, owner and executive chef of Bonney Read. Avery says additional outdoor and limited indoor seating is not enough to maintain a restaurant. “You can’t run a profitable business at 25 percent [capacity]. We need to get to 100 percent and the sooner we get to 25 percent, the sooner we can do that.”

To others, in the wake of the pandemic, Asbury’s decision for businesses that serve food is too much, too soon.  “I’ve heard a lot of people saying that Murphy already allowed indoor gatherings of less than 50 or 25 percent capacity of the building, so why not restaurants? What’s the big deal with adding food and drink to the equation?” says Shanti Mignogna, co-owner of Talula’s. “It seems pretty simple to me. You can’t wear a mask while you eat.”

Come Monday, the doors to Talula’s dining room will remain closed. “The short notice definitely doesn’t give restaurants much time to plan, which is concerning because planning has been everything during this pandemic,” says Mignogna, citing the safety of her employees as one concern that’s keeping her from opening indoors just yet. “New Jersey has made amazing progress so far and we wouldn’t want to jeopardize that. Indoor dining is probably close but to jump the gun, and with less than a week’s notice, seems short-sighted.”

At Cardinal, Brahn says they will stick to outdoor seating for now. “Based on our comfort level, we’re going to go ahead and open outdoor dining only and work out the kinks with that first because it just feels safer to us and a little less rushed.”

But across the street at Bonney Read, Avery is ready to open. He says his crew has been working out safely protocols and floorplans to maximize seating while keeping people distant. “We’ve been chomping at the bit to do this. So, honestly, at this point, any news like this is good news,” he says.

His excitement is echoed by deputy mayor Amy Quinn. “We are excited to reopen Asbury Park,” she said in a statement. “Covid-19 has had an enormous impact on our community. As Council, it is our responsibility to do everything that we can to help our struggling businesses rebuild while keeping our residents and visitors safe during this pandemic. The Governor’s Executive Order No. 152 already allows indoor gatherings of up to 50 people and we simply decided to extend it to food and beverage service.”

On Thursday, the lack of clear definitions of the possible consequences for reopening left restaurateurs unsure if any negative action would be taken on those that follow Asbury’s directive over the Governor’s. “In my interpretation, it doesn’t seem as though there’s going to be any real ramifications,” Avery says.

By Friday afternoon, Murphy announced that after an attempt to amicably resolve Asbury Park’s issue on indoor dining, the attorney general will be bringing a lawsuit against Asbury Park to enforce the executive order.

Barring a suspension of liquor licenses or other major consequences, Lola’s European Café owner Scott Mizrahi says he will be opening indoors on Monday. “We’ve been suffering long enough,” he says of the past few months of closure due to the pandemic. “As of right now, we are going to open.” He believes the cafe’s distinctive style lends itself well to a 25 percent capacity cap. “It’s not a typical dining experience where people stay for an hour to an hour and a half. People are quick—in and out. With our turn over, even at 25 percent, that’s a lot for me.”

Other Asbury eateries have taken to social media to announce their decisions. Pascal and Sabine, Brickwall Tavern and Porta—all under the Smith Restaurant Group umbrella—posted the same statement on their online profiles, announcing that they will wait for further direction from the governor’s office to reopen indoors. “We can’t wait to serve you inside our four walls again, and bring our full staffs back to work,” the posts read. “But we need to make sure when we do it, it’s for real.”

“We have lived this already folks, we don’t want to go living it again,” said Murphy on Thursday. “We’ve gone through hell. Please let’s not go back through it.”

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