Increased indoor dining ruling met with swift response: It’s not enough

Business groups, industry leaders, elected officials say N.J. needs to do more — and fast

The reaction seemingly came within minutes of the announcement that indoor dining capacity in New Jersey had increased: When can it increase more?

To be clear: Going from 25% capacity to 35% likely will be just adding a table or two to any restaurant — certainly not enough to make those who have not found a fortune in takeout suddenly profitable. But it is a step. Marilou Halvorsen, the outgoing CEO of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association — and a strong advocate for more openings — certainly viewed it that way.

Marilou Halvorsen. (File photo)

“I think it’s more symbolic than what we really need to do,” she said. “And it’s no surprise. There’s always been a thought that it would be a gradual increase, rather than going from 25% to 50%.

“Hopefully, within the next month, we’ll see it go to 50%.”

State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Holmdel) wasn’t as polite.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order does not go far enough, he said.

“As happy as we are that there is some relaxation here, it is still completely outrageous to continue on with this endless slow drip of restrictions being lifted,” he said. “Every surrounding state is at 50%, at least.

Sen. Declan O’Scanlon. (File photo)

“We’ve been behind our neighbors in lifting these draconian regulations for months. And the delay hasn’t shown any indication that we are doing any better with our rate of transmission; we are simply still economically killing our restaurant and hospitality industry.”

The other good news is that the 10 p.m. curfew has been lifted. That has been tough on not only bars and restaurants, but catering halls and fine dining. Having to be done by 10 was difficult.

Michele Siekerka, the head of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said more is needed.

Michele Siekerka. (File photo)

“Obviously, we would like to see greater capacity allowed than the 35% announced today,” she said. “This is what our Main Street businesses, like restaurants, gyms and personal care businesses, really need and what New Jersey needs to galvanize its economic recovery and to get people back to work.

“We are encouraged that the governor is announcing these steps today, but we also respectfully encourage that more will be needed, sooner rather than later, with livelihoods continuing to be at stake.”

Murphy gave municipalities the ability to set their own curfews — any time after 8 p.m., he said. Murphy said it’s an issue where local control is key.

The mayors of two of the state’s most important areas for restaurants and bars — Jersey City and Hoboken — quickly chimed in.

Mayors Ravi Bhalla of Hoboken, left, and Steve Fulop of Jersey City. (File photos)

Jersey City’s Steve Fulop and Hoboken’s Ravi Bhalla said their towns are open for business.

“Based on guidance provided by Gov. Murphy and the state of New Jersey, we have made the joint decision to allow bars and restaurants to operate during normal, regular business hours, without a local curfew,” they said in a joint statement.

“Recent analysis from our health departments, as well as information provided by the New Jersey Health Department, suggests that a curfew at this time may no longer be necessary. This time around, we believe that a coordinated regional approach is the best way to implement safety measures, when necessary.

“Our public safety officers and city staff will be aggressively monitoring all bars and restaurants during overnight hours to ensure COVID-19 safety precautions are being taken at all times. If not followed, any bar or restaurant will be subject to immediate penalties, including but not limited to closure.”

Of course, closure is what O’Scanlon feels is awaiting more restaurants and bars if the capacity is not lifted quickly.

“It’s outrageous that, after all this time with contact tracing showing restaurants are not the nexus for new cases, that the administration will only give them a 10% capacity increase,” he said. “We have months of hard evidence from virtually every other Northeast state — we can go to 50% capacity with no negative health/transmission impact.

“Today is a small victory, but, unfortunately, not one that’s large enough to make a real difference to save the industry.”