Starting at 6 a.m. Friday, New Jersey restaurants can resume indoor dining at 25% capacity.
The announcement came to most via Gov. Phil Murphy’s Twitter feed Monday morning, about an hour after Politico New Jersey broke the news — giving restaurant owners who have been wanting to reopen indoors as soon as possible just four full days to staff up, stock up, and enact all the proper sanitation measures.
That’s a tall order for some operators, especially those who hadn’t opened for outdoor dining.
“They’re starting at zero,” said Marilou Halverson, president of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association. “For the people that are just completely shut down, to try and get their staff back and get them trained, that is where it is much more challenging.”
Dominic and Lindsay Piperno’s Collingswood restaurant, Hearthside, has been closed after winding down takeout-only service in June. Though the couple aren’t yet comfortable with indoor dining, they decided last week to launch outdoor dining. When they contacted their staff, they realized they wouldn’t be able to reopen until Sept. 24.
And even then, “my biggest concern is taking these guys off unemployment,” Dominic Piperno said. “I don’t want them to get less money.” They plan to bring back a smaller staff for the 32 outdoor seats they’ll have available.
When chef-owner Joey Baldino factored the effect of 25% indoor capacity at his own Collingswood BYOB, Zeppoli, it amounted to eight more seats.
“Especially for a BYOB, where you don’t have that extra income from alcohol sales, just to [serve] eight people, it’s kind of ridiculous,” Baldino said. He isn’t in a rush to reopen inside; he plans to do a deep clean and stick to outdoor seating unless the weather necessitates otherwise. “Come the end of September and October, when it gets a little chilly, we’re going to be on it.”
Merchantville’s 30-seat Park Place won’t be reopening at all. “I couldn’t even have two four-top [tables] in there at the same time,” said owner Phil Manganaro, who has been cooking for private parties instead. He recently renewed his lease on the restaurant space, which he plans to use more as a commercial kitchen in the short term.
“Trying to figure out how to cycle seven people in and out of there over the course of the night — temperature checks and masks — just not what I signed up for,” he said.
The news went over better, no matter the timing, with restaurants with a larger footprint.
“We’re very excited, albeit surprised,” said Rosita Lamberti, manager at Caffe Aldo Lamberti. The expansive Italian restaurant in Cherry Hill has room for more than 400 people indoors, giving it plenty of space even at 25% capacity.
The cafe overhauled part of its parking lot earlier this summer to build an additional deck, growing its socially distanced outdoor capacity to more than 100 seats, all of which would stay in play, Lamberti said.
“I think that probably about 75% of people will still prefer to dine outside,” she said, adding that the indoor option would provide some welcome stability during summer storms. “It’ll give us an opportunity to be able to move some guests inside.”
The Borgata in Atlantic City, on the other hand, responded to Murphy’s forthcoming executive order by announcing it would wind down operations on two new outdoor dining venues. (The Borgata Beer Garden will remain accessible outdoors, as will covered tables near the casino’s entrances.)
Instead, the Atlantic City complex will go almost all-in on its ample indoor dining options. Between the Borgata’s four fine-dining establishments — Angeline, Izakaya, Old Homestead Steak House, and Bobby Flay Steak — there’s room for 360 socially distanced seats, according to director of communications Liza Costandino. Its casual dining options allow for 200 more.
Costandino said the closing of the two new venues, Sunbar at the Water Club and Borgata Street Eats Food Truck, was due to the need to transition restaurant staff back indoors. She said the Borgata had been planning for indoor dining for a while.
“We are in a position where when the state says go, we’re able to go, because we’ve been preparing,” she said.
He was excited about the news, but also said, laughingly: “I don’t know what changed over the weekend that somehow our governor woke up this morning at 8 o’clock and decided to tweet out to the world.”
He anticipated needing to find additional staff for his restaurants — and maybe even additional furniture, since much of Knife & Fork and Dock’s outdoor seating came from inside.
In a Monday morning interview, Dougherty wondered what fresh stipulations would come out of Murphy’s yet-to-be-issued executive order. “Should I be staffing my bar? I know I can do 25%, but, again, are the tables going be six feet apart or nine feet, or six feet apart from the guests?”
At an afternoon news conference, Murphy and Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli gave a preview of the guidelines, with an emphasis on HVAC systems.
“Routine maintenance should be conducted on these systems,” Persichilli said. “The HVAC unit should be run two hours before and two hours after the facility is occupied. Restaurants should consider installing portable air cleaners equipped with a high-efficiency particulate air filter” (HEPA filter).
“They’re going to incur more costs for the owners,” said Kelsey Jackson, owner of Kelsey & Kim’s Southern Cafe and Kelsey’s Atlantic City, a supper club known for its live music.
Jackson is renting a large outdoor tent for $3,500 a month at Kelsey’s, to which he’s committed through the end of September. He’s loathe to open indoors after sinking money into that investment.
“If we would have known about [indoor dining] sooner, we could have prepared for that,” Jackson said. “And to me, when we go back to indoor dining, 25%, is that really going to be enough to cover your overhead on your property?
“Maybe for smaller establishments, but mine — I have almost a 10,000-square-foot building that we have to pay for. So 25% is really nothing.”