Local restaurant owners and officials say Gov. Phil Murphy’s unexpected pausing of indoor dining is jeopardizing their summer.
Restaurants had been cleared to reopen their dining rooms at 25% of capacity Thursday, until Murphy announced Monday that dining rooms must remain closed indefinitely.
The decision, he said, came after patrons crowded into outside bars over the weekend, many of whom were not wearing masks or practicing social distancing.
At his daily COVID-19 briefing Tuesday, Murphy said that while many restaurant and bar owners followed mandated guidelines, it only takes one person to “undo months of progress and ruin it for the rest of us.”
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“The scenes that we all saw over the weekend of crowded bars in our state, where social distance was neither enforced by owners, nor practiced by patrons, sadly, don’t look terribly different from this one, and they cannot continue,” Murphy said, showing a photo of a crowded Lake of the Ozarks over Memorial Day weekend in Missouri. “This is how flare-ups happen. This is how you risk turning your community into a hot spot.”
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said Murphy shouldn’t have “collectively punished the whole class because of the few people that did not adhere to strict restrictions.”
And just days from July 4 weekend, Levinson said the announcement couldn’t have come at a worse time, explaining that most small businesses in the county have just three months to make a profit.
“Small restaurant and bar owners think maybe they can salvage something this summer, but that doesn’t look like it’s going to occur,” said added. “It’s terribly upsetting.”
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Anthony Giaccone, owner of Jo-Jo’s Italian Grille in Pleasantville, ordered $2,000 worth of liquor and $5,000 worth of food in anticipation of indoor dining Thursday.
“We spent about $7,000 that we didn’t need to spend,” Giaccone said. “Hopefully we’ll sell it by the end of the month.”
With indoor seating at 25% capacity, the restaurant would have made about $2,000 a day, he said.
And not only did Giaccone increase his inventory, the restaurant was making arrangements to space tables 6 feet apart and was bringing back more staff. It’s currently operating with 50% of its staff. With indoor dining, Giaccone had planned to bring back 80% of his staff.
Jo-Jo’s, situated on the corner of the Black Horse Pike and Main Street, never put out tables for outdoor dining but is offering takeout and delivery. Giaccone said putting tables outside was too much of a liability.
“And it’s just so hot,” he said.
While takeout and delivery have been successful, the owner said indoor dining, liquor sales and the summer crowds generate most of the income.
“It’s ridiculous that (the governor) had to do what he did,” he said. “The most frustrating part is not having any idea what’s going to happen next month and the future. At this point, I think the summer’s done.”
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Other area restaurants have also put social distancing measures in place and increased their inventory, but now have to work even harder to move those perishable items before they go bad. They also expressed distaste over the governor’s announcement, saying South Jersey is not North Jersey, where the majority of COVID-19 cases have been reported, so it should be treated differently.
Officials share restaurateurs’ frustration.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, said Monday he was “completely disgusted” with Murphy’s announcement and that his heart breaks for small business owners.
“This is no longer about safety,” Van Drew’s statement read. “This is Gov. Murphy forcing businesses to die; businesses that just spent months investing and preparing to open at a time he gave his word to them on. The restaurants placed food orders, bought PPE, hired staff back and started advertising.”
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The New Jersey Business Coalition, which makes up more than 100 businesses and nonprofits in the state, also criticized Murphy’s announcement.
“New Jersey restaurant owners made plans,” its statement read. “We should recognize they invested in interior changes to their facilities, notified staff they can come back to work and spent considerable dollars to purchase food and beverages in order to meet the demands of the customers they were ready to serve.”
Greg Goff, owner of Goff’s Seafood in Pleasantville, is a seafood distributor that sells to a handful of Atlantic City casinos. This week, he ordered 4,000 pounds of lobster to distribute to the casinos ahead of Thursday’s reopening and holiday weekend. Casinos can reopen Thursday, but its restaurants, because of Murphy’s announcement, can only offer takeout.
Now Goff has 4,000 pounds of lobster to move.
Since he can’t sell them to the casinos, he made an outdoor walk-up counter, implemented a few months ago amid the virus outbreak, where customers can order seafood without stepping foot inside the warehouse.
He sells a few hundred pounds of seafood a day through the counter. Customers can get shellfish, cod, crawfish, clams, shrimp and scallops.
He also has a room full of frozen inventory, like lobster tail, snow crab and crab legs, that are typically for casino buffets. The inventory, which is usually replenished every week, has been sitting in the freezer since March.
Although Goff is worried about losing money, he remains hopeful he’ll sell this week’s inventory through the walk-up counter.
“Maybe for the Fourth of July we might sell a thousand pounds on the street,” he said of the lobsters. “But I would love to sell 4,000.”
If he doesn’t sell all 4,000 pounds over the holiday weekend, he said the lobsters can keep a few weeks, but that’s it.
“We were making up our orders and all this stuff would come in and orders were good,” he said. “For (Gov. Murphy) to just pull the plug like that … it’s a rough deal.”