Murphy, restaurant group exec face off over talks on indoor dining (updated)

Daniel J. Munoz//August 19, 2020

Murphy, restaurant group exec face off over talks on indoor dining (updated)

Daniel J. Munoz//August 19, 2020

The head of the trade group representing the state’s restaurants rejected Gov. Phil Murphy’s suggestion that no one from the organization had attempted to schedule a meeting to discuss how eateries could safely resume indoor dining.

Asked at a Trenton news briefing on COVID-19 whether he would meet with Marylou Halverson, the head of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, Gov. Phil Murphy said he had not heard from her before Aug. 19, when she sent him a personal text message.

In an interview, Halverson responded that “I guess the new protocol is you have to call the governor directly for a meeting. To have him basically call me a liar… I’ve been reprimanded by the administration for advocating on behalf of small businesses.”

She added: “I am not going to be made to look like a liar on TV.”

Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association. – PHOTOS BY AARON HOUSTON

During the briefing, Murphy was questioned about his contacts with the association. “Halverson reached out to me this morning and sent me a text, that’s the first text I’ve gotten from her and if she sees it differently, she’s welcome to correct the record, but I can’t recall having received a text from her, I’m not sure ever, but I can’t recall for a long time,” the governor responded.

“No request for a meeting from either her or someone else has come to me from the restaurant association,” Murphy added.

An email exchange obtained by NJBIZ depict communications between the governor’s office and the trade association near the end of June, leading up to Murphy’s decision to pull the plug on indoor dining.

Halverson emailed Joe Kelley, Murphy’s chief of staff for economic growth, on the morning of June 22, requesting an NJRHA-member town hall for July 2 that would include previewed questions from members and two presenters who would “discuss our sanitization protocols, identify challenging issues, and be available for the Gov to ask that questions.” Indoor dining was slated to begin again on July 2.

For the next three days, Halverson and Kelly went back and forth, along with other scheduling staff from the governor’s office. The exchange viewed by NJBIZ ends inconclusively on the last weekend in June.

On June 29, Murphy backtracked on indoor dining.

“How are we doing with this call?  I think now is more important than ever,” Halverson wrote to the governor’s office at noon on June 30.

Minutes later, Michelle DeAngelo, a scheduling aide for the governor, answered that “we’re a bit back up with the holiday this week.”

“Maybe around [July] 9th or 10th, I got a phone call. … Basically saying no, it wasn’t going to happen,” Halverson told NJBIZ.

Murphy indicated on Aug. 19 that “our teams are in constant communication with the restaurant association, including Marilou and her colleagues.”

“[T]hat’s the way it should be. We’re literally in constant communication, just as we are … with gym owners,” he added.

In a statement emailed to NJBIZ on Aug. 20, the governor’s office said Halvorsen’s claim was “patently and provably false” and insisted that Murphy’s staff were in “near daily contact” with the association beginning when the lockdown was imposed in March.

“This included at least 10 calls or virtual meetings with either Chief of Staff George Helmy or Deputy Chief of Staff for Economic Development Joe Kelley and other Senior Staff and Cabinet Members. In addition, Marilou sits on both the business coalition, made up of various groups representing New Jersey’s  business community, as well as the Governor’s Restart and Recovery Advisory Council. Both groups have had a number of calls with senior staff and cabinet members and the governor himself has addressed the council on more than on occasion,” the statement reads. “What’s more, the governor and his staff have engaged with dozens of individual restaurant owners throughout the state. The Governor has always valued New Jersey small businesses, including restaurant owners, and recognizes the economic hardships the pandemic has wrought. To allege that the restaurant industry has been in any way ignored is disingenuous and false.”

Gov. Phil Murphy speaks during his, June 12, 2020, COID-19 press conference at War Memorial in Trenton.
Gov. Phil Murphy speaks during a COVID-19 briefing in Trenton. – THOMAS COSTELLO, GANNETT

Restaurants have been operating at reduced capacity for outdoor dining only, since June 15. For nearly three months before that, they could offer only take-out and delivery services under orders the governor issued to limit large, indoor gatherings. Public health officials maintain that such activities promote the spread of COVD-19.

Many restaurants shed staff and others closed their doors indefinitely — some permanently. Unemployment surged to new heights during the economic shutdown.

Murphy had said he would allow indoor dining to resume on July 2 at 25 percent capacity, but he pulled the plug on those plans just days before the scheduled restart.

“We have seen spikes in other states driven in part by the return of patrons to indoor dining establishments where they are seated and without face coverings for a significant amount of time. We do not wish to see New Jersey experience a similar spike,” Murphy said that day.

Murphy has warned that he might tighten restrictions on outdoor bars, as many of them struggle with 6-foot physical distancing and face covering usage, both at the establishments and on the lines to gain entry.

The governor has rejected reopening plans put forward by the NJRHA, as well as the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, the New Jersey Business and Industry Association and other business groups.

Those plans call for a regional reopening strategy in coordination between businesses and local health officials.

“If you jump the gun and go to economic health and don’t take the proper steps on the public health side, you run the risk of this blowing up in your face,” the governor said. “You’ve got to see both sides of the equation.”

This article was updated at 3:10 p.m. EDT on Aug. 20, 2020 to include an emailed response from the governor’s office.