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Industry reacts to indoor dining delay

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New Jersey restaurants open outdoor dining to its customers

Asbury Park Press

One week ago, Gov. Phil Murphy announced indoor dining would resume with social distancing and other precautions on July 2.  

Amy Russo Harrigan ordered food. She hired staff to return to work. She prepared her Asbury Park, Red Bank and Montclair restaurants, all named Toast, for a service they had been unable to offer since the coronavirus pandemic closed dining room doors in March.

This step forward was especially important at the Montclair restaurant, which has minimal tables outdoors but could seat 30 diners at a time inside when following the state-mandated reduced capacity of 25%.

In a breakfast and lunch restaurant that turns tables every 45 minutes, that amounts to more than 200 diners during opening hours.

“This was literally going to save us,” Russo Harrigan said.

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Amy Russo Harrigan, owner of Toast, prepares to open for outside dining in Asbury Park, NJ Monday, June 15, 2020.  (Photo: Tanya Breen)

But on Monday, several minutes into the governor’s daily news conference, it became clear that her preparation was for naught. Citing a spike in coronavirus cases in states that have reopened indoor dining, the governor indefinitely postponed its return in New Jersey.

“We must hit pause on the resumption of indoor dining, which was to resume this coming Thursday,” Murphy said. “Under our revised plan, indoor dining will now be reset to resume at a later date to be determined.

“It brings me no joy to do this, but we have no choice,” he said. 

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The governor said he does not anticipate allowing restaurants to reopen indoor dining for weeks.

“Twenty-five percent is basically throwing us a bone,” Russo Harrigan said. “I never expected it to just go away.”

She cited the fact that several New Jersey bars have drawn criticism for allowing unmasked crowds to gather, stating that since they encourage the gathering of crowds, such establishments should be last to reopen.

“Go pull the liquor licenses of (the establishments) that broke the rules and let the other places continue on with their business,” she said. 

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Last week, crowds gathered at D’Jais Bar and Grill in Belmar. This past weekend, social media posts showed a large, unmasked crowd at Donovan’s Reef in Sea Bright.

Restaurants are different, Russo Harrigan said.

“Restaurants without liquor licenses, restaurants with liquor licenses, and bars should be treated like three different businesses right now,” she said. “Everybody that I’m involved with, we’re following the rules.”

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Matthew Borowski, owner of  618 Restaurant in Freehold Borough, also is disappointed with the governor’s decision. 

“From the start, I said if I have to shut down for 14 days to stop people from dying, I would. But if I shut down, everyone else must shut down,” he said. “No picking and choosing. Every single business.

“Thousands of people were at Home Depot today. The young man at the gas station. a mask only covering his mouth, grabbed my credit card with no gloves on. How is their business safer then mine?” Borowski said. “I spent thousands on following protocols. I do the right thing. I’m still paying taxes and rent. Who’s going to make sure I can feed my family?”

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The dining room at 618 Restaurant in Freehold Borough. (Photo: DOUG HOOD/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

Louise Cornick, who owns The Edge in Jackson with her husband, Phil, said they are devastated by the governor’s announcement.

“Restaurants are very capable of keeping their guests and employees safe by maintaining stringent sanitizing and distancing precautions,” she said. “This is a slap in the face to the restaurant industry.

“After announcing that restaurant can reopen indoors, restaurants made the necessary changes to reopen. We hired more employees, ordered and purchased food to service our guests, and now yet again we have wasted our limited resources creating more financial hardship,” Cornick said. “Unfortunately, this may be the last nail in the coffin for many restaurants in NJ.” 

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For Toby Sweeney, however, the governor’s announcement was a blessing. 

The owner of The Terrace Tavern in Beach Haven, which earlier this month opened a large outdoor dining space, said she was losing sleep over how she would safely accommodate diners indoors.

“There was no way we were going to be able to do it. Too many variables I can’t control,” she said. “How many dollars does this bring? Is this worth it? We have to do so much to accomplish this.

“Let’s work on getting the outside part right before we introduce all the variables inside might bring,” she said.

A lifelong Jersey girl, Sarah Griesemer joined the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey more than 15 years ago. Send restaurant tips to sgriesemer@gannettnj.com and follow @jersey.shore.eats.

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