At Annette’s Restaurant in Ventnor, owner Cheryl Venezia has weathered the coronavirus pandemic by offering takeout. Now she’s hoping to turn her parking lot into an outdoor dining room. But since New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has said restaurants won’t open until Monday, she faces another weekend before customers can sit down.
“I really don’t think it’s fair what he’s doing to all of us,” Venezia said. “I want to tell him how much money I’ve spent to open up. Police barriers for parking lots. It’s cost us thousands of dollars. … I just don’t get why we can’t open up inside? Give the people the choice to come in or not? Why keep dragging this on?”
For Venezia and others suffering from the state’s frozen economy, the question of how Murphy has handled the shutdown is not theoretical. And with new confirmed coronavirus cases on the decline in the state, anger is growing.
“I’ve asked, what’s the data that says a restaurant can open on a Monday and not on a Friday?” said State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester). “I’ve had people call me that own small businesses, and they’re saying they survived two recessions, they’ve been around for 20 years. And they’re telling me, ‘I can’t believe the government I’m paying taxes to is going to put me out of business.’”
While Murphy, like many governors, saw a huge surge in support for the early stages of his coronavirus response, there are growing signs of tension as people tire of strict rules, other states open up, and the summer beckons. Protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police have complicated things for the first-term Democratic governor: He faced a backlash for joining a protest while still advocating for social distancing.
“He’s in a position right now where you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t,” said Modia Butler, a Democratic consultant in New Jersey.
Murphy has said New Jersey can move to stage two of its reopening Monday, meaning outdoor dining, limited retail, and day-care centers can resume. He relaxed restrictions on indoor gatherings — from allowing groups of 10 people to permitting 50 people or 25% of a building’s capacity. But hair salons, barber shops, nail salons, and swimming pools will stay closed until June 22.
New Jersey has had the second highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country, second only to New York. Murphy risks a resurgence of the virus by moving too fast, but potential backlash if the case count keeps dropping and restrictions stay in place, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan University Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship.
“This is a very difficult needle to thread for any executive,” Dworkin said.
Asked how Murphy is weighing some of the criticism he faces from both sides of the debate, his spokesperson Darryl Isherwood said the governor has formed a 21-person commission from the fields of science, economics, finance, business, and academia to look at issues around restarting the state’s economy. He also has named an advisory council of almost 300 people from around New Jersey.
“This is an unprecedented situation without a master playbook on how to respond,” Isherwood said in a statement. “Throughout it, Gov. Murphy and his administration have sought guidance from public health professionals and have relied on the science to provide the clearest way forward. Not every decision is going to be popular with every constituent, but saving the lives of New Jerseyans has been the governor’s guiding force throughout.”
Some of Murphy’s decisions have been criticized as too lenient. After he announced last month that beaches could open for Memorial Day weekend, Pennsylvania health officials warned residents it wasn’t safe to go.
And in light of protests over Floyd’s death, Murphy said he would allow outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people for “First Amendment-protected activities.” But he drew backlash for attending demonstrations when his administration had hit people with citations for organizing protests against the coronavirus lockdown. The governor said he encourages protesters to wear masks and practice social distancing.
Murphy’s daily coronavirus briefings, streamed live on Facebook to a virtual crowd of thousands, now feature a continuous scroll of mostly jeering comments, a window into the discontent spreading throughout the state. On Thursday, many centered on the continued closures.
“You can protest with hundreds safely you can open a restaurant,” wrote one commenter.
“Only 174 more stages and we will all be open,” said another, to a chorus of laughing face emojis.
And, in one Jersey classic: “Open tanning salons, you got me [messed] up with no base tan in June.”
This week, Asbury Park announced it would allowing indoor dining, and other cities have begun pushing the limits of Murphy’s orders. In Northfield, the owner of a movie theater was cited after he reopened early.
Murphy said Thursday he had been in discussions with city leaders and would enforce his orders. “We’ve been engaging actively with the governing body,” he said of Asbury Park. “We completely understand the pressure to get open.”
The governor has even come under fire from prominent Democrats, like Brendan Sciarra, owner of the Mudhen Brewery and chair of the Cape May County Democrats, and Atlantic County Democratic Chair Michael Suleiman, who has urged Murphy to reopen casinos.
State Sen. Michael Testa, a Republican who represents Cape May County, said the frustration transcends politics. Testa has filed a lawsuit against Murphy on behalf of a barbershop, a wedding venue, an equestrian center, a brewery, and the Republican State Committee, accusing Murphy of exceeding his authority.
“We were told we had to flatten the curve," he said. "Not only did we flatten the curve, now he’s crushing the economy. We’re crushing our summer.”
Testa and others have said small businesses are drowning, and some officials and business owners wonder if Murphy, a former executive at Goldman Sachs, understands the challenges facing mom-and-pop operations.
In North Wildwood, weeks of criticism from the mayor and attempts to begin outdoor seating ahead of schedule have been to no avail.
“Murphy’s "actions have shown a complete lack of the reality of small business and the reality of tourism in New Jersey,” said Patrick Rosenello, the mayor of North Wildwood.
Rosenello said people supported Murphy’s decisions at the outset of the public health crisis, but patience has worn thin. Since mid-April, Rosenello said, the governor’s plans have lacked clarity and guidance as to why businesses had to stay closed, or how they could plan to reopen.
“The reopening trajectory has been a disaster, particularly for small businesses," he said. "The impact is going to be felt for years in this state.”