Gov. Phil Murphy defended his controversial Monday decision to hit the brakes on indoor dining, initially set to resume two days before the July Fourth weekend, arguing the next day that allowing indoor dining to resume could “ignite a public health crisis.”
”We want to give ourselves a couple more weeks to make sure we can drive this thing close to the ground,” Murphy said at a Tuesday morning appearance on the Today show. “We’ve gone through hell. The last thing we want to do is go through hell again.”
His decision sent restaurant owners scrambling on Monday, many of whom had shelled out thousands of dollars to ramp up operations for indoor dining.
That’s prompted a harsh backlash from business advocates, restaurant owners, and both Democrats and Republicans in the state Legislature.
Businesses complained that they had shelled out massive costs to prepare for reopenings, which are now losses these restaurants will have to eat.
“Many restaurant owners spent thousands of dollars ordering food, hiring back employees, and aligning indoor safety practices in preparation for reopening indoor dining prior to the Fourth of July weekend,” reads a Monday statement from Marilou Halverson, president and chief executive officer of the trade group the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association.
“Some owners even used personal credit cards in hopes of regaining ground,” she added. “We shouldn’t sentence an entire industry because of unprepared states and the bad acts of some bar operators.”
Though Murphy said he has “enormous sympathy” for these restaurant owners, he said his priority was nonetheless to keep the pandemic from rebounding. “Why would I want restaurants to not be open other than to save lives?”
At his daily COVID-19 press briefing in Trenton on Tuesday, he reiterated that “[w]e’re trying to stay one step ahead of this virus.”
His Monday decision cited both “knuckleheads” – who crowded outdoor bars and restaurants, rarely wore face masks and ignored physical distancing guidelines – and rising cases in other states.
So far, only outdoor sit-down dining is allowed in the state. Many social media posts since that service was allowed, on June 15, show outdoor dining establishments up and down the Jersey Shore packed with customers—a worrisome trend, Murphy said.
“We can’t be lulled into complacency and think it’s okay to crowd around bars without any regard for those around us,” the governor said on Tuesday. “That is how we backslide.”
Restaurant owners argued that Murphy should go after those bad actors, be it with fines, naming and shaming, or a liquor license revocation. But the governor argued that “to stamp out the knucklehead behavior,” which he still intends to do, would not be enough to prevent a resurgence of the virus.
“It’s what we’re seeing elsewhere,” he said on Monday—a direct tie between indoor dining and new rebounds of the virus in the south and west parts of the nation.
Murphy said the last thing he would want to do would be to once again tighten restrictions on businesses, public gatherings and most forms of travel, which he did in March and April to deprive the virus of any chance to spread to new hosts.
States such as Texas and California, which rushed ahead with their reopenings, are now taking the route to inch back toward some form of lockdown to stop the seemingly uncontrollable spread of the virus.
Murphy pointed to the rates of transmission and positivity of the virus – two of the three metrics used to gauge whether the virus is spreading, which have gone up in recent days. The third, hospitalizations, has remained steady.
The current rate of transmission is 0.88, so for every one person who gets COVID-19, it’s spread to 0.88 people. It’s been below one for weeks, but at the start of the “Stage 2” it was 0.70.
“We knew that as more businesses began to reopen, we would see an increase as more people got out and moved about. We’ve been able to keep this increase in check, but we know that we can also quickly lose control of this virus, and keeping this number from going higher remains a top priority,” Murphy said on Monday.