Last week began with Gov. Phil Murphy finally allowing limited indoor dining and drinking and casinos to reopen just ahead of the Fourth of July weekend.
This week, after businesses had spent money and rehired workers in preparation for that, Murphy flip-flopped. Just three days before Thursday’s announced reopening, the governor said he will ban indoor food and beverage service until further notice, probably for weeks.
Murphy said he changed his mind because states in the South and West were seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases, and because he had seen a media report of “knucklehead behavior” at an outdoor bar in New Jersey with people not keeping 6 feet apart and not wearing or incorrectly wearing masks.
This twist in the media wind by Murphy adds to the severe losses by food and beverage businesses under his pandemic emergency orders, and threatens the survival of many of them in tourism areas heavily dependent on the core summer season.
An Italian grill in Pleasantville spent $5,000 on perishable food in preparation for the announced and then reneged reopening. A seafood wholesaler in town who caters to casinos bought 4,000 pounds of lobsters for them — only to hear at the last minute that although they could offer gambling, they couldn’t serve food or drinks.
Criticism of Murphy was bipartisan. Dennis Levinson, Atlantic County executive, said Murphy’s reversal was “terribly upsetting” and wrong to “collectively punish the whole class because of the few people that did not adhere to strict regulations.”
Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo said the reversal and Murphy’s veto of a bill to provide EDA loans to small hospitality businesses “is an absolute slap in the face to the hospitality industry.”
Rep. Jeff Van Drew said Murphy was “forcing businesses to die” and asked, “How is going to a busy big-box store any safer than a prepared restaurant?”
Telling tens of thousands of New Jersey businesses and millions of workers they could finally start restoring their lives with adaptations to the pandemic, and then yanking that long-sought relief away from them at the last minute seems like an emotional, arbitrary response. Murphy could have used light-handed enforcement to publicize the kind of pandemic behaviors he is seeking, but instead he lashed out at many thousands of innocent residents.
This is what happens when an emergency turns into autocratic rule, and the stable structure of government is replaced by the dictates of a single person.
Murphy’s abrupt reversal surprised even his Democratic allies in the Legislature. Two months ago they should have restored the balance and dependability of having collaboration among equal branches of state government.