NJ Restaurants Are Ready and Willing, But Still Blocked From Opening Indoors

In a virtual press conference, restaurateurs tout their heightened safety and make the case for the immediate resumption of indoor dining.

Five leaders of the New Jersey restaurant and hospitality industry vented their frustrations Monday morning in a virtual press conference that, for all intents and purposes, was aimed at changing the mind of one person, Governor Phil Murphy. The message: The industry is ready to reopen for indoor dining, safely and right away.

Back in mid-June, restaurants were serving customers outdoors and eagerly gearing up to resume indoor dining at reduced capacity on July 2. Then, on June 29, the Governor put indoor dining on indefinite hold as a precaution against further spread of Covid-19. Many operators, having already ordered food and supplies and rehired staff, felt blindsided.

“We had increased labor costs, because we had to bring people in on cleaning crews,” said Marilyn Schlossbach, Asbury Park restaurateur and chairwoman of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association (NJRHA). “We put in UV lighting [for sanitation], we printed 10,000 menus in anticipation of reopening, and those are still sitting in boxes.

“It was huge—bringing in food and supplies, training employees to a new standard of operating and getting restaurants sanitized. The cost could be in the tens of thousands of dollars.”

“You can shop in a big-box store where there is no social distancing and ride on an airplane,” said Marilou Halvorsen, president and CEO of the NJRHA, “but you can’t go to dinner at a restaurant with your family where social distancing and sanitary protocols are in place.”

The press conference kicked off what Halvorsen described as a month-long “I Serve Jersey” campaign to bring the plight of the state’s food and hospitality industry to the attention of elected officials throughout the state.

Another goal, she said, is to counter “how the restaurant industry is being portrayed as super-spreaders” of Covid-19. Although the state infection rate has crept upward in recent weeks, Halvorsen said “what’s been causing it is exactly what the Governor has been stating in his recent press conferences…indoor house parties.

“Our restaurants are certainly safer than these parties where the celebrations are occurring,” she noted, “because restaurants and banquet halls are not open.

“How the restaurant industry is being portrayed…is without basis,” she added, “and it is demeaning to the men and women who make a living in the hospitality industry.” Halvorsen and other speakers noted that the restaurant and hospitality industry “is the state’s largest private-sector employer,” accounting for about 350,000 jobs across more than 19,000 eating and drinking establishments.

The catering business is decimated as well—weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, anniversary and birthday parties. “We had over 150 brides had to be rescheduled,” said Tom Daidone of the Estate at Florentine Gardens in River Vale. “We’re trying to give answers to questions, and we have no answers.”

The speakers noted that about 85 percent of restaurant and hospitality workers had been laid off in the pandemic shutdown and only 23 percent are back at work. The speakers estimated that about 30 percent of the restaurants that closed will never reopen.

Halvorsen said the NJRHA had recently submitted to the governor’s office an updated safety plan for the resumption of indoor dining at greatly reduced seating capacity. The plan includes two new stipulations, she said: “All guests must be seated while eating and drinking, and no bar seating is permitted.”

“We need to bring people back to work,” said Bob Wagner, owner of Ott’s Restaurant Group and Braddock’s Tavern in Medford. “We’ve given [the governor] a plan, and asked for weeks and weeks for a meeting.”

“We have not received any timetable on reopening,” said Halvorsen. “We’ve been in conversations with the governor’s office, but we’ve not heard anything. We hope that will change.”

Halvorsen, referring to the introduction of a $30 million aid bill in the state legislature, said “it’s fine, but it’s not enough” to rescue the industry.

While outdoor dining has helped many restaurants soldier on, the speakers pointed out that far from all restaurants have the footprint to offer it and that creating a suitable outdoor space, putting up tents, tables and so forth is extremely expensive, to say nothing of fiberglass partitions and the like.

And once the warm weather wanes, they emphasized, so will the viability of many restaurants, unless indoor dining at some reduced capacity is revived.

“We need long-term planning,” said Marilyn Schlossbach, in reference to the governor. “I didn’t get into this business to do takeout. I got into it to create memories.”

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