Restaurants want indoor dining, but Murphy isn’t budging
Hours before Gov. Phil Murphy tightened rules related to indoor gatherings, and reminded eateries that open-air storefronts alone do not permit them to serve diners under their roofs, New Jersey's restaurant industry held a virtual press conference urging Murphy to green-light indoor dining throughout the state.
Comments made by Murphy during his Monday afternoon coronavirus press briefing suggest that step in the state's reopening plan likely won't happen anytime soon — the state's estimated COVID-19 transmission rate has doubled over the past few weeks, which Murphy says is moved in part by several incidents involving "knuckleheads" who weren't following health and safety protocols while gathering at homes and other venues.
"Our restaurants are certainly safer than house parties where these celebrations are occurring because restaurants and banquet halls are not open," Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association, said during the event on Zoom.
New Jersey currently bars all indoor dining, and has since March under restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Halvorsen said she's confused by the "inequity of how businesses are reopened" in New Jersey — one can go shopping at a big-box store, where people are touching merchandise and putting it back on the shelf, and one can ride mass transit.
"But you can't go to dinner or go to a restaurant with your family where social distancing of tables and sanitation protocols are in place," she said.
Outdoor dining has been permitted in New Jersey since June 15. Murphy had called for a return to indoor dining on July 2, but pulled the plug three days prior due to virus-related concerns here and in other states.
"We need to have a successful second reopening without having a wrench thrown in our spoke," said Bob Wagner, head of Ott's Restaurants and Braddock's Tavern.
As of now, the industry estimates that 30% of New Jersey's restaurants will close. The industry notes that the state's wedding venues are hit even harder, and their closure has led to a ripple effect impacting the job security and income of professionals such as photographers, florists and musicians.
"It's been tough, and unfortunately, without getting an answer, this is going to affect 2021 and possibly the first quarter of 2022," said Tom Daidone, of The Estate at Florentine Gardens in River Vale.
The NJRHA recently updated its recommended plans for indoor dining, which have been sent to the Governor's Office. The recommendations now suggest that all guests be seated while eating and drinking, and that no bar seating be permitted.
"The only way we can get to where we want to be with indoor activities, be it dining or anything else, is everyone plays by the rules and no one tries to make end runs around them," Murphy said Monday afternoon. "This is not a game. This is about public health and safety."
Murphy said you can't eat or drink while wearing a face covering, but you can wear a mask on a bus or train, or while doing other indoor activities.
"Continuing the restrictions is the safe and prudent course," added Darryl Isherwood with Murphy's office, through email. "The governor stands by his commitment to small businesses and to date some $70 million has been made available to New Jersey businesses, including restaurants, in the form of grants."
During his press event, Murphy lowered the limit on indoor gathering to 25 people, down from 100. He also clarified that restaurants must have two open walls to serve diners indoors.
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