Two months ago, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy cited spiking coronavirus infections in other states as a reason to postpone the return of indoor dining. As restaurants opened across the country, he said, it was clearly sparking new outbreaks.
Now, as the state’s restaurant industry prepares to open indoor dining rooms on Friday, some fear the fate of their businesses will continue to depend on how others handle the pandemic.
Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said her group’s members have been working for months on sanitation procedures and improvements to airflow in their buildings. But as gyms and schools open alongside her industry’s businesses, she fears restaurants will be blamed for any resurgence of the virus.
“I never want people to think we are dismissive of public health and safety,” Halvorsen said. “But through these months when we saw things opening, and saw that restaurants that deal with sanitation protocols weren’t part of it, we wanted to show [Murphy] what we’re about, and walk him through what we do.”
More than six months after the coronavirus pandemic arrived on the East Coast, New Jersey is one of just two states in the country where indoor dining remains prohibited. The other, California, reopened dining rooms earlier this year but later closed them amid outbreaks around the state.
New Jersey’s gyms, movie theaters, and other indoor concert venues can open this week along with indoor dining, with capacity limits and other guidelines in place. Studios for yoga, Pilates, and martial arts have been open for more than a month, as have indoor museums and aquariums. Murphy has encouraged school districts to open for in-person classes when possible. He has said he believes high school sports can resume safely this fall, citing a relatively lower risk of infection outdoors.
Murphy won’t dismiss the possibility of future restaurant shutdowns if the virus spikes anew. But at his regular briefing Monday, he said his goal is to increase the capacity limit for indoor dining from the current 25%, and that any scaling back would be based on “sustained” increases in infections. He also said state officials would look at whether outbreaks were linked to restaurants.
”We are doing everything we can to get our restaurants back above the water,” he said. “This is an incredibly important industry to us in this state, and we want it to be back on its feet.”
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney said he wishes Murphy had kept in step with the reopening pace of New Jersey’s neighbors, citing the state’s plummeting sales tax revenue. Indoor dining has been allowed in Delaware and in Philadelphia’s collar counties since June. Philadelphia restaurants will resume indoor service next week.
“Delaware’s open for dining and we’re not, Pennsylvania was selling cars before we were, you look at where barbershops opened and we were late on that, too,” Sweeney said. “People have cars, and if people want a service, they’re going to go get it.”
Sweeney said Murphy will “have to find a way” to increase restaurant capacity guidelines before the weather worsens. Asked if he is concerned future spikes could result in another round of restaurant closures, Sweeney said, “That would be a major problem.”
Halvorsen, of the restaurant association, said she never got the meeting she envisioned with Murphy — the first time they spoke was by phone about a week ago. When Murphy canceled indoor dining in June, just days before it was scheduled to resume, restaurants lost thousands spent on food, staff, and other expenses. State lawmakers have approved a $30 million bill to reimburse them.
» READ MORE: Gyms in New Jersey can reopen Sept. 1
Once second only to New York, New Jersey now ranks eighth in terms of overall confirmed coronavirus cases, according to Johns Hopkins University, and the metrics used to monitor the spread of the virus have been trending down for months.
To reopen indoor dining, Murphy said, the transmission rate, a benchmark to measure the virus’ spread, had to remain below one for more than a week. A transmission rate of one means that on average, each person with the virus is giving it to one other person, so below one means the spread is decreasing. The spot positivity rate, which measures the percentage of people to test positive on a given day, had to stay “among the lowest in the nation,” he said. This week it is 1.2%, down from 1.4% last week, and on the lower end for all states.
As disparities emerged between different parts of the state, some questioned why Murphy wouldn’t allow county-by-county openings of restaurants and gyms, similar to Pennsylvania and New York.
Murphy spokesperson Alyana Alfaro Post said the statewide order on restaurants mitigated the virus’ spread by limiting people’s travel from hot spots — an echo of the reasoning behind New Jersey’s travel advisory, which asks travelers from states with high infection rates to quarantine after arriving.
“A regional approach to business restrictions, such as indoor dining, poses challenges in a geographically small state like New Jersey because individuals can easily travel to another region to go to a restaurant,” she said.
Some business owners have taken matters into their own hands, arguing that they can open safely — albeit illegally. In June, a Jersey Shore movie theater opened, then closed, after the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office cited it. Owners of the Atilis Gym in Bellmawr have engaged in a months-long standoff by repeatedly opening in defiance of the guidelines, culminating in the revocation of their business license last month.
In Ocean County, the Lakeside Diner in Lacey has been serving customers indoors since June, leading to multiple citations for violating the public health order. Last month, when authorities requested that local Public Works employees help board up the door, Lacey Mayor Steven Kennis said he refused.
“I don’t think anybody feels that any public employee should be boarding up small businesses because they decided to open. It’s insane,” he said. “I don’t know how our governor can’t put himself in someone else’s shoes.”
Lakeside owner Brian Brindisi said he opened in a “respectful way,” because he had employees and family who depended on him.
“We elect officials to help us. There’s no help here,” Brindisi said. “It’s been stressful on me, my family, and my employees. But I feel in my heart I’m right and I need to move forward.”
Staff photographer Tyger Williams contributed to this article.