NJ Restaurants Can Open for Outdoor Dining Beginning June 15

Earlier this week, Gov. Murphy announced the next phase of New Jersey's reopening plan. Some restaurants expressed frustration, others look forward to welcoming guests back.

outdoor dining
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For the first time since restaurants were restricted to takeout and delivery in March, the public has been invited to actually take a seat. Gov. Phil Murphy made the announcement Monday, allowing restaurants to serve patrons at outdoor tables beginning Monday, June 15.

UPDATE: On June 5, the state Department of Health issued the following rules:
–Signs must be posted at entrances barring entry to anyone with a fever or Covid-10 symptoms
–Seating is limited to a maximum of eight people per table
–Buffets, salad bars and drink stations are banned
–Partitions must be erected at cash registers, bars, host stands and wherever else adequate social distancing is difficult
–Restaurants must monitor employees’ vital signs daily and send home any with a fever or Covid-19 symptoms
–Employees must wear face masks and gloves when handling or serving food and dealing with customers
–Restaurants should encourage customers to make reservations and should obtain contact information for all patrons
–If a table, reserved or otherwise, is not available, patrons should wait in their cars or outdoors and maintain social distancing

“It’s a first step, which everyone in the industry was waiting for,” says Jeanne Cretella, president of Landmark Hospitality, whose properties include Liberty House on the Jersey City waterfront, Felina in Ridgewood and the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station. Cretella serves on a committee of the governor’s Restart and Recovery Advisory Council, where she represents the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association (NJRHA).

Many New Jersey restaurateurs were pushing, or at least hoping, for an earlier opening.

“Now we have another two weeks of waiting ahead of us, and that means a lot of lost revenue,” says Lucas Manteca, chef/owner of Quahog’s in Stone Harbor and Beachwood at the Dunes in Sea Isle City, which have been doing takeout.

In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, outdoor dining will begin this Friday, June 5, across the state; counties that have reached the “green phase” of reopening will be allowed to resume indoor dining that day, according to the NBC TV affiliate in Philadelphia.

New Jersey’s planned Monday reopening was met with some disappointment, depriving operators of a lucrative weekend at a crucial time of year, especially on the Shore.

“We requested a weekend opening,” Cretella says. “We would have loved that. But at least we’re no longer feeling paralyzed. You dip your toe in the ocean. We’ve started the process and we appreciate the governor making that announcement.”

What can New Jersey diners expect when outdoor dining begins?

“If you look at what Pennsylvania has done,” Cretella says, “maybe we’ll have a requirement like theirs that tables be six feet apart, that there be no bar stools or congregating at a bar.”

The NJHRA’s recommendations to Gov. Murphy’s office includes, Cretella says, that “anyone who faces a guest will wear a mask.” In addition to heightened sanitation of all surfaces, these recommendations include checking staff each day for fever and signs of illness and obtaining contact information from all guests as well as noting who they sat with, where they were seated and who served them.

“Anything we can do to make guests comfortable we’re willing to do,” says Cretella.

Questions remain. “How about the toilet?” asks Manteca. Since the lockdown began, restaurant restrooms have been off limits. “What will be the restrictions, and how will people react to us policing the restrictions? We’re exhausted. Every single week it’s something new.”

Restaurants that previously had outdoor seating can set out tables again, if at lesser density, but for others the way forward may require negotiating with landlords or towns. At Il Nido, an Italian fine-dining destination in Marlboro, chef Joseph Voller says he knows what he wants to propose. Il Nido occupies four adjoining 25-foot storefronts in a strip mall. “If they allow me six tables out front, eight feet apart, maybe one four-top [four seats] and the rest two-tops, I’ll still do curbside pickup, but I may have to ask people picking up takeout to park a little farther away so the guests in front don’t have exhaust in their face as they try to enjoy their meal.”

Since Murphy’s announcement, a few municipalities with major downtowns—Hoboken, Jersey City, Red Bank and Ridgewood—have taken steps to ban vehicles from some blocks in the business district and turn them into pedestrian malls. Among other things, tables for dining could be set out there.

Outdoor dining comes with one wildcard—weather. “I don’t have a tent or an awning,” says Marilyn Schlossbach, chef/owner of Pop’s Garage, Langosta Lounge and the Asbury Park Yacht Club, all in Asbury Park, “so if we have a rainy weekend, we can’t move customers inside. Either you turn them away or pack their food to go.” Pop’s and Langosta are on the boardwalk, where, she says, “there’s an ordinance that you can’t have a tent or an awning, so if the weather is not good we’re in trouble.”

Operating throughout the pandemic has been stressful for restaurateurs, to say the least. “Most people have gotten some deferral or forbearance of rent or mortgage,” says Schlossbach, “but with all the packaging and PPE and lower sales overall, the cost of doing business is exponentially higher than it was last year. Just the garbage we’re producing with all the single-use stuff is considerable. Meat prices are through the roof. I have 75 employees; that’s a lot of masks, and there’s no relief [being provided] for all of this.”

At Heirloom Kitchen, a cooking school and NJM Top 30 restaurant in Old Bridge, owner Neilly Robinson is preparing to place tables just outside the entrance. She calls it the sidewalk, but it is part of the Village at Town Center shopping complex and not the usual pedestrian sidewalk. In the complex, she says, there is also a plaza and “three other restaurants are putting out a ton of tables. We want something more quiet and intimate. We got approval from the landlord, and will probably have just 15 seats and do a four-course prix fixe at $89.

“All we can do is create an environment where people will feel comfortable and safe. We’ve kept people engaged through to-go, and though none of us have a crystal ball, I think people will be excited to dine outside. I just want to focus on the task at hand and try to do it well.”

For Dominic Piperno, chef/owner of the NJM Top 30 Hearthside in Collingswood, the loss of the dine-in experience—centered on the wood-burning grill and oven in the open kitchen—is just too much. He and his wife, Lindsay, did takeout for a few weeks, but business dwindled when people began heading for the Shore. Outdoor dining on the sidewalk, with very few seats, is not only unprofitable, he says, but “we’ve worked our whole lives to open Hearthside, it was very successful, and we refuse to open some weird-ass version of it. The name Hearthside means the room by the fireplace. If it means we have to wait until there’s a vaccine, in the spring of 2021 or even 2022, we’ll wait.”

In the meantime, Piperno has taken out a federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan—not to pay staff, as many are doing, “but to pay my vendors. I hated the fact that I had no money coming in and I owed my purveyors money. I didn’t want to leave a bad taste in their mouths. So I’m paying them back 100 percent.”

He realizes that under the present terms, PPP loans are forgiven only if 75 percent of the money is used to cover payroll. “If anything is forgiven, thank you Government. Whatever isn’t, I’ll pay back. I’m not looking for a handout.”

With outdoor dining about to commence, attention turns to the ultimate question—when will indoor dining resume?

Murphy’s announcement that hair salons and barber shops can reopen June 22 elicited some frustration from Ryan DePersio, chef/owner of Fascino in Montclair and Battello and the Kitchen Step in Jersey City.

“I’m pro-opening salons,” he says, “but if someone is working on your hair and face, why can’t someone serve you food? They’re not giving us an explanation.”

Jeanne Cretella, as informed an insider as anyone in New Jersey dining, is more upbeat.

“I don’t see why it can’t be mid- to late July,” she says. Cretella. “I think the government will re-evaluate every two weeks, and if things continue to move in a positive direction, it can happen. There will be restrictions on capacity.”

Indeed, restaurateurs have been talking for awhile about seating capacity being reduced anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of pre-pandemic levels. This would reduce revenues drastically, and with most costs remaining fixed, profits could evaporate as well. Many restaurants will not survive under such strictures.

But Cretella remains optimistic, at least about winning back the public’s trust.

“There’s no other industry, behind healthcare,” she says, “that recognizes the importance of sanitation measures as much as restaurants. It’s how we operated even before Covid-19.”

Voller of Il Nido is also optimistic, based on his sources.

“I hear that we will go indoors sometime in July,” he says. “The people who told me this, I was talking to about outdoor dining. They said it would it happen on June 15th or 22nd, and it turned out to be the 15th.”

Voller added that he has installed the highest level HEPA filters in his air conditioning system and UV-C ultraviolet lights, which kill viruses and bacteria, inside his ventilation system.

“We’re ready to go,” he says.

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