MONMOUTH COUNTY, NJ — The owner of a white tablecloth fine dining restaurant in Monmouth County wants to know when Gov. Murphy will raise the indoor dining capacity to 66 percent, something Murphy has said he wants to do “sooner than later.”
But even if it happens, will customers come inside? On Saturday, New Jersey recorded 954 new cases, the state’s highest caseload since late May.
“Right now, I have 18 tables inside, and I’m having a hard time filling those. I’d say there are still 60 percent of diners who don’t want to come inside yet; they’re not comfortable. The other 40 percent are like screw it, and rip the mask off,” said the restaurant owner, who did not want to give his name. “But 25 percent is just not enough. If this continues at 25 percent, I’m going to have to close.”
In Connecticut, the governor is now allowing 75 percent capacity for indoor dining, up from the 50 percent it’s been all summer. That change goes into effect Oct. 8. As of Sept. 21, Pennsylvania moved to 50 percent indoor dining. And New York state has been at 50 percent indoor dining all summer — except for hard-hit New York City. The five boroughs, like New Jersey, are still only at 25 percent capacity indoors.
“We are way behind our Northeast neighbors,” said state Senator Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth). “None of them are reporting spikes due to indoor dining. The evidence is clear from all of our surrounding states: Indoor dining at 50 percent to 100 percent capacity can be done safely. This irrational hesitance must stop.”
O’Scanlon, like many Republican legislators in New Jersey, has been pushing Murphy for months now to raise the indoor dining limit to 66 percent.
But for this restaurant owner, it may be simply too little, too late.
“We ran at a 15 percent loss in July, and 20 percent loss in August and those are our prime months,” he said. “And now we’re going into the shoulder months when we barely made any money anyway. If we don’t have an answer soon, I’m ready to hang up my apron.”
His main message for Gov. Murphy? Not all bars and restaurants are the same.
The restaurant owner said he watches Murphy’s coronavirus press conferences every day — “as tough as they are to watch as a business owner” — and shudders when he sees photos of packed bars in Seaside Heights and Sea Bright.
“Young people packing the bars, that hurts us. Murphy sees a picture of that and then the governor closes all restaurants,” he said. “Now we have a spike and I know darn well he’s coming after us. Meanwhile, my clients aren’t doing that.”
His clientele is not young people in their 20s, but rather older couples in their 50s and 60s, the kind of people who can afford the $34 he charges for an entree.
And that’s exactly who’s scared the most of coronavirus.
“Here I am fighting for 66 percent and those people don’t even want to come inside and sit in a restaurant,” he sighed.
He was given Payroll Protection Program funds from the federal government, but as any business owner can tell you, it’s easy to go through the money quickly.
“I spent $20,000 on outside dining: I had to put in concrete, $15,000 for an awning, $3,500 for table and chairs and fans, and then just yesterday had to spend $2,000 on heaters,” he said. “I brought all my staff back in June and then I had people saying they don’t want to come in and work, because they were making more money with the extra $600 on unemployment.”
He sent this text to O’Scanlon last week:
“Sorry to bother you I know you’re a busy man but I was wondering if there has been any word on Murphy raising the indoor dining percentage from 25% to your proposed 66% because if that doesn’t happen sooner than later I’m going to have to throw the towel in. It’s just not enough to keep the doors open and I would like to give my staff ample notice. I mean looks like we may have this week on our side but that’s probably it. lmk thanks”
“It was absolutely stunning to me when I got this message from this restaurateur,” said O’Scanlon. “This is a prominent restaurateur, his family and restaurant are beloved throughout Monmouth County. This is the last restaurant I’d expect to hear this from. If this individual is this close to the precipice, we are in danger of losing them all.”
“Our small-business community was hit extremely hard by the pandemic and statewide shutdown,” said Monmouth County Freeholder Director Tom Arnone. “While our beaches reopened in time for the Memorial Day holiday weekend, the state shutdown left a majority of our businesses closed until mid-June. Moreover, our restaurants and other food establishments were prohibited from providing indoor dining all summer.”
At the moment, the intimate Italian restaurant is open and doing a steady business with outdoor dining and curbside takeout. But any day now, its owner warns: It may be lights out.
“My lease is up. It’d be pretty easy for me to slide out of here,” he shared. “I worked so hard for this. But I have a point when I will throw in the towel. I’m not going to watch money burn.”
Right now, he isn’t sure who to blame.
“I want to say I’m mad at Murphy, but he is following what he thinks is best. COVID is real, I’m not denying that. I don’t want to tell people to come into restaurants and get sick,” he said. “I guess I’m angry that anytime there’s a spike, it gets blamed on the restaurant business. How do they know it didn’t come from Stop & Shop?”
This article originally appeared on the Long Branch-Eatontown Patch