Restaurant industry says it’s not ‘super spreader,’ not responsible for uptick in COVID cases

While COVID-19 cases — and the rate of transmission — are still on the rise in New Jersey, the restaurant community said it wants to make one thing clear to Gov. Phil Murphy and the public: Restaurants are not the “super spreaders” they are being portrayed as.

“That is without basis,” Marilou Halvorsen, CEO and president of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association, said at a news conference Monday. “It is demeaning to the men and women who work and make a living in the hospitality industry.”

Marilou Halvorsen.

Halvorsen and others appeared on a Zoom conference Monday morning in an effort to give the industry’s side of the story. Hours later, at his daily COVID-19 briefing, however, Murphy announced he was placing more restrictions on indoor activities in the state.

Those gatherings are now limited to 25% of a location’s capacity, with a maximum of 25 people. This is down from the previous maximum of 100.

While some feel such moves are necessary to stop the spread of the virus, Bob Wagner, owner of Ott’s Tavern, which has four New Jersey locations, and Braddock’s, in Medford, thinks such changes may have disastrous effects on the restaurant industry.

“The problem is, he keeps changing the rules,” Wagner said. “We had a failed first attempt … that caused a lot of businesses not to ever reopen again. Sales are down 50% … we need to reopen.”

Marilyn Schlossbach, the chair of the NJRHA and owner of Langosta Lounge in Asbury Park, thinks the opening of restaurants for indoor dining can help fill a need for human contact.

“The passion we have to bring people together … is what we do — and it needs to be protected,” she said. “I didn’t get into this business to do takeout, I got into it to create memories.”

Marilyn Schlossbach.

Indoor dining in the state was set to resume July 2. Murphy, however, stopped this plan only three days beforehand, as he announced that indoor dining would be postponed indefinitely due to the increasing spread of COVID-19 seen around the country.

New Jersey’s rate of transmission is beginning to reflect those outbreaks. After many weeks at or below 1.0, it has jumped in the past week. On Monday, the governor announced it was at 1.48 new cases resulting from each case.

Murphy continues to reiterate in his briefings that one of the largest causes of this increase is indoor gatherings, such as a house party in Middletown last week that led to at least 50 new positive cases.

When asked specifically about the NJRHA’s stance, he reiterated that he views indoor gatherings, including dining, as a challenge to limiting the pandemic.

“Here’s the thing: You have to take your mask off (to eat or drink),” he said in response to a reporter’s question. “I did not see the press conference, so I can’t speak to exactly what they said, (but) for the most part, folks are being incredibly responsible in that industry, notwithstanding the enormous hurt that they’re under — and we have nothing but extreme sympathy for that hurt.

“The fact is, you can’t eat or drink and have your mask on, and that isn’t the case on the bus or a train, or some other indoor activity.”

Jeanne Cretella, president of Landmark Hospitality, which operates catering and event venues around the state, sees the restaurant industry as the solution for out-of-control gatherings.

Jeanne Cretella.

“Much of it is due to people not following the rules and deciding to host their own events in their homes and backyards where there’s no (safety) systems in place,” she said. “Those events should’ve been in a setting where professionals like us have systems in place to avoid what we’ve seen.”

Halvorsen agreed.

“People are socializing and they’re not doing it safely,” she said. “We need to allow them to do it in places that have safe operations (like) our restaurants and businesses.”

How soon that may happen, however, remains unclear.

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