With both she and her husband out of work since mid-March and no clear direction on when the economic uncertainty might end, Jessica Weyler decided she needed to act.
The 34-year-old casino bartender from Linwood put together a Facebook page called “NJ Food and Beverage Workers,” started the social media hashtag “#dont86ourindustry” and organized a rally on Wednesday afternoon in the state capital for fellow unemployed restaurant, bar and hospitality workers. The rally will start at 1 p.m. in front of the State House Annex in Trenton.
Weyler said the goal of the demonstration is to have Gov. Phil Murphy ease coronavirus-related restrictions and allow indoor dining to resume or, at the very least, be more transparent about what the state’s plans are for the industry. She wants the rally to be “strong and respectful” and to “get our voices heard.”
“I don’t want this to be about politics,” said Weyler, who has worked on-and-off at Premier nightclub inside Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa for 15 years. Her husband also works at the Atlantic City casino. “I’m not a politician. I’m a bartender. I’m a mother, and I just want us to be able to support our family.”
Weyler said anyone impacted by the statewide restrictions — bouncers, coat checkers, event security, stagehands, entertainers, etc. — were welcome to attend Wednesday’s rally in Trenton.
The ban on indoor dining is hurting more than just owners and employees of restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Food and beverage distributors are also feeling the economic pain caused by a severe drop in product demand.
Brian Ireland, master distiller and founder of Mr. Finger’s Alibi Gin, said the majority of his business is with local restaurants and bars. Ireland said while he has been “lucky enough to weather the storm,” many others are struggling to survive.
“I can’t tell you how many places are doing a fraction of their normal numbers or aren’t open at all in some cases,” he said. “And in (Atlantic City), casino drinking is all but dead right now.”
On Tuesday, the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association and the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey will host a meeting with business owners to discuss the impacts COVID-19 has had on the industry, develop a short- and long-term agenda, and ask elected officials to allow them to responsibly reopen. The meeting will take place at 10 a.m. at Ott’s in Sewell, Gloucester County, and will be live streamed on the NJRHA Facebook page.
New Jersey is the only state with a total ban on indoor dining.
In June, the Atlantic City-Hammonton metro area had the highest unemployment rate in the country at 34.3%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than 7,700 people in the metro area who work in the leisure and hospitality industry were unemployed as of July.
Local officials and business trade groups throughout the state have questioned the rationale behind the decision and have called on Murphy to immediately change course, warning that further delay would cause irreversible economic harm to businesses and employees.
Following an announcement last week that indoor fitness centers could resume operations, Michele Siekerka, the president and CEO of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said the nation’s largest business owners’ organization was “disappointed that the governor’s current prohibition on indoor dining remains unchanged, even as neighboring states have already moved forward to lift restrictions.”
“Many restaurants were already prepared for the original July 2 reopening at 25% capacity before the governor changed his mind,” Siekerka said. “The odds are still long for restaurants to thrive with limited indoor capacity, particularly as we steer toward colder weather in the coming months when outdoor dining will not be as feasible. Continuing a ban on indoor dining, even as schools, health and fitness centers, and other businesses reopen, makes no sense and could be the death knell for many restaurants.”
Area politicians are of the same mind on indoor dining. State Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, and Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato, both D-Atlantic, have each expressed support for reopening indoor dining. The Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders unanimously voted in favor of a resolution urging Murphy to allow restaurants and bars to open their doors.
“We have already lost Memorial Day and Fourth of July business and are fast approaching Labor Day and the fall season with no indication that the governor will permit indoor dining and entertainment anytime soon,” Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said earlier this month. “Our restaurants are dying on the vine and cannot survive on just take-out, delivery and curbside service alone. ... We’re fighting for our economic lives here and we need the governor to take action.”
Michael Chait, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber, said restaurants and bars had “significant, additional operational costs” this summer because of having to purchase personal protective equipment for employees, take-out packaging and tenting “all while losing an enormous portion of their seasonal revenue which carries them through the offseason.”
“Outdoor dining will soon lose its appeal as the summer is ending,” he said. “We need to responsibly move indoors for the long-term survival of the restaurant industry and maybe our region.”
Thus far, the pleas have gone unanswered. The governor has not provided any public health benchmarks that would permit the food and beverage industry to reopen indoor dining rooms or given a clear indication about when the restriction might end.
The absence of information only compounds the frustration for people who have been out or work for more than five months, Weyler said.
“At least let us know, give us some hope so we can prepare,” she said. “Because if we’re not going to get back to work, we have to figure out another line of work. We just want some communication.”