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Egress for the entrees

Towns and cities will play a central role getting businesses back on track amid myriad new restrictions

Street cafe with tables and chairs. Cozy outdoor cafe. Dinner plate setting.

DEPOSIT PHOTOS

As restaurants gear up for reopening on June 15 to outdoor dining, the word “creative” has been increasingly thrown around among businesses and the halls of government.

The executive order that Gov. Phil Murphy signed on June 3 allows bars and restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining only, at a reduced capacity so tables can be spaced 6 feet apart. Retail can also open, but with capacity limits as well.

Gov. Phil Murphy at his daily COVID-19 press briefing at the War Memorial in Trenton on June 3, 2020.

Murphy

“That’s to give folks the confidence that they can say ‘actually you know what? I can get out there and take my family to an outdoor dining experience beginning on June 15, or to a non-essential retail shop,’” the governor said on June 3 at his daily COVID-19 briefing at the Trenton War Memorial.

The decline in new cases of COVID-19, fatalities and hospitalizations has made the administration comfortable to let bars, restaurants and non-essential retail reopen their doors.

But al fresco has typically been an experience some foodies might seek out during more pleasant weather. Others like to avoid it, especially when heat waves roll in, or thunderstorms flare up. Now, it’s the default for the near future, and the only option for diners hungry for an experience that has been off limits for nearly three months.

To accommodate outdoor dining, the state’s Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control is relaxing its rules through November on just where a restaurant can serve alcohol. The new rule expands the definition of a “premises” to include adjacent decks, parking lots, patios, sidewalks and other “open outdoor areas.”

“It’s a first step. It’s not going to help everybody” said Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association, which represents many of the state’s eateries in the halls of the state capital.

But, she maintains, some establishments “are happy opening on a slow and measured approach.”

Marilou Halvorsen, president and CEO, New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, at Firehouse Subs in Lawrenceville.

Halvorsen

In the meantime, Halvorsen added, restaurants are looking to keep their operations scaled back from what they were before the pandemic as they prepare to reopen.

“You’re going to see things like limited menus. We’re not going to be operating on all cylinders. You’re not going to have as many employees,” she said. “You’re not going to bring in every ingredient. If you have 20 entrees and you have 10 appetizers, you’re going to scale that down to five appetizers, maybe 10 to 12 entrees. You’re going to pick your most popular ones.”

NJBIZ reached out to local officials up and down the state, to see how they’re tinkering with local laws to help these businesses adapt.

“Towns are getting very creative in working with the restaurants,” said Michael Cerra, assistant executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities. “There’s no one-size-fits-all. Every restaurant is unique in terms of location and capacity.”

Retail will be a bit easier, Cerra pointed out, because the rules are more straightforward.
“You can control the number of people that come in, just like with food stores or essential retail operations … the people are wearing masks, they’re asked to keep a certain distance from one another once they’re indoors.”

The vast majority of the focus has gone toward outdoor dining in public spaces, and for good reason. Residents have been getting out of their cars and seeking walkable environments. New requirements for businesses to adapt have only hastened that evolution.

“It’s amazing though, when you think about our urban forums, something like 70 percent of it is streets and parking … and that’s public space,” Metuchen Downtown Alliance Executive Director Issac Kremer told NJBIZ.

Late last month, the borough approved a resolution closing off several roads in the downtown business district to vehicular traffic between Friday afternoon and Sunday night. The move allows business owners and borough officials to convert the sidewalks and parking spaces into outdoor dining spaces.

“We have some businesses that are putting dividers between tables,” Kremer said. Or the borough might use parklets, “where you lay a platform down and put some kind of barriers.”

“People might be inconvenienced, but what’s the highest and best use … one car sitting for three or four or five hours or is it having six tables” with a high turnover of customers?

Private parking lots might also be easier to convert, Cerra said. A restaurant at half capacity would only need half the spaces, and so the remaining half could be devoted to outdoor dining.

“There’s other businesses … if they’re 9-to-5, if it’s a parking lot that’s shared by a law firm, and retail store that closes at 5 or 6, does that change the ability to open up some spaces after business hours? There’s a whole lot of variables,” he added.

In Jersey City, officials are also experimenting with parklets, turning them into outdoor seating areas. For the summer, the city will expand the length of “Restaurant Row” on the Newark Avenue Pedestrian plaza by several blocks.

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.

Fulop

“Our goal on outdoor seating is to be proactive,” Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop said in May.

“The prior process you’d have to go through [to allow for outdoor seating was] a fairly lengthy approval process. [It depended on] width of a sidewalk, specific detailed plans … we want to move that forward and broaden the list of restaurants that can do outdoor business. It might not just be your restaurants, it could be other businesses as well, but we want to get more of them up and running when the weather’s warm.”

The city is also offering more testing to businesses and their employees; roughly 200 businesses have signed up to have their entire workforce tested for COVID-19, the mayor said.

“So we set up a time for them to come in, or if it’s more than 20 employees, we go to them, we test them,” he told NJBIZ in June. “It helps foster trust and better relations with the customer. It’s easier for us to say ‘they’re hitting the ground running’ knowing that all the employees did testing.”

Hoboken, just north of Jersey City, unveiled a similar outdoor dining strategy, which would run between April and October every year. Sidewalks in front of a business would be used for seating and retail.

Curbside parking would be converted into seating for bars and restaurants, and entire streets would be temporarily shut down to vehicle traffic to allow for even more outdoor dining and retail.

Down in Asbury Park – a 1.6-square-mile Monmouth County seaside city – local officials are also tinkering with how to boost outdoor dining in the business district.

Boardwalk restaurants, by design, are outdoors, so owners face few changes. But the city’s business district is a bit more of a challenge, according to Amy Quinn, the city’s deputy mayor.

“There needs to be a path for emergency vehicles, to make sure we can keep everybody safe. We’re looking at those big picture ideas.”

Wesley Grove condominiums on Cookman Avenue in Asbury Park.

Cookman Avenue in Asbury Park is home to both residential and commercial spaces. – NJBIZ FILE PHOTO

She noted that the downtown is a mix of residential and commercial spaces. “The first floor is retail and restaurants and bars, so all above it is residents. This is going to stop at a certain time,” Quinn said of outdoor dining. It would not carry over into the wee hours of the morning.

Still, the city is waiving outdoor dining fees, a move that would take some pressure off businesses but blow a $130,000 hole in its municipal budget.

That’s nothing new for governments across New Jersey, which have seen their tax revenues pummeled by the COVID-19 recession and have incurred increased expenses financing their responses to the pandemic.

“Asbury Park is not going to be Asbury Park if these businesses don’t reopen. We’re looking at much more dire consequences if businesses can’t reopen,” Quinn said.

Seventy-five miles farther south, in the sleepy Long Beach Island community of Beach Haven, local officials are trying the same tactic: organizing outdoor dining and centralizing it through the borough government.

“Every business has the opportunity to present a plan to us, which we will evaluate,” said the borough’s mayor, Nancy Taggart David.

“As soon as this opens on the 15th, most of the people will be ready to go. There’s tents already set up, there’s tables already set up 6 feet apart.”

Daniel J. Munoz
Daniel Munoz covers politics and state government for NJBIZ. You can contact him at dmunoz@njbiz.com.