“Hurry up and wait or wait to hurry up.”
That was the particular grumble from Marilyn Schlossbach, who owns Pop’s Garage, which serves Mexican cuisine, and the Langosta Lounge on the Asbury Park boardwalk – among several other eateries along the Jersey Shore. And, she says, the last three months have been just like that.
Restaurants and bars across the state are allowed to reopen on June 15, but for outdoor dining only. Non-essential retail will be allowed to reopen too, but with 50 percent capacity, 6-foot minimum distancing, and a face-covering requirement.
For all the patrons who’ve adhered to those rules at essential businesses such as pharmacies and grocery stores, those requirements will be nothing new. The reopening of restaurants will be more complicated.
Many towns are shutting down busy streets on the weekends so that smaller establishments can expand their outdoor footprint. And the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control is loosening restrictions on where a business can serve liquor to take some of the pressure off as they comply with the new requirements.
“It’s going to be a bit of a scramble,” Schlossbach remarked. “Hopefully the weather is nice.”
During the week of June 7, when she made those comments, summertime heat and humidity roasted much of the state, pushing temperatures into the 90s. The arrival of torrential downpours made for uncomfortable outdoor settings.
Pop’s and Langosta will be combined and share a single kitchen, Schlossbach said. Staff will be trained on hygiene and sanitization protocols and how to operate a computer system geared toward take-out. Furniture will be moved outside and floor markers are being installed to make social distancing easier.
Asbury Park also drew attention on June 10 and 11, when the city council defied the governor’s shutdown orders and passed an ordinance allowing indoor dining capped at 25 percent of building capacity, or 50 people, whichever is lower. The ordinance was modeled after the executive order Murphy signed earlier in the week, which sets those same limits for how many people are allowed at an indoor gathering.
“Unless the governor shuts it down, our businesses have a lot to do before Monday, June 15,” wrote Amy Quinn, the city’s deputy mayor, on her Facebook page.
Gov. Phil Murphy soon criticized the plan, saying at his daily briefing on June 11 that it went against his executive order.
“We move as one state guided by science, period,” he said. “With all due respect, we cannot have communities mirroring the cavalier actions taken in other states that have not put a premium on… the health of their residents.”
June 15 marks the start of “Stage Two” of the state’s reopening as the COVID-19 pandemic shows more signs of slowing down. Murphy signed an executive order on March 16 prohibiting sit-down dining at restaurants, allowing only just take-out and delivery service.
The order forced many eateries to close their doors. Marilou Halverson, president of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, told a state Senate committee on economic recovery during a June 8 hearing that between 15 and 18 percent of restaurants that closed during the shutdown may never reopen.
Tim McLoone, who owns 12 restaurants, said take-out amounted to only 5 to 12 percent of his restaurant sales.
“On March 15, I had 12 restaurants,” he told lawmakers at the remotely held hearing. “On March 16, it’s as if all 12 of them burned to the ground on the same night and I had no insurance.”
His establishments include McLoone’s Boathouse in West Orange and Tim McLoone’s Supper Club in Asbury Park. McLoone’s staff, which once included about 700 workers, has been cut to no more than 50.
George Kyrtatas, executive chef and co-owner of Sweetwater Bar and Grill in Cinnaminson, told lawmakers that with the restrictions on outdoor dining, he still expects his seating would be cut from 60 patrons to roughly 30.
“That isn’t enough revenue coming in to offset any of the loss that I’m making right now.”
Restaurant owners also told the Senate committee they were frustrated they could not reopen on Friday, June 12, which would have allowed them to capture some weekend revenue not available because they’re opening on Monday.
“Every day we lose at this time of the year is like losing 40 days in January or February or March,” McLoone said.
Some proprietors, such as Madeline Meseroll, who owns the Mad Fish Co. in Seaside Park, said she expects to make few profits from sit-down dining.
“Luckily for us, the foundation of our business is primarily takeout,” Meseroll, who took over the storefront from her mother when it was called 3 C’s Luncheonette, told NJBIZ. “Seventy percent of the business last year was take-out.”
As for outdoor dining, the fish house, which serves fried seafood platters, only has two outdoor picnic tables. Adding more tables would mean expanding onto the sidewalk, space needed for pedestrians and those waiting to pick up their orders.
The shop does have indoor seating capacity for 33 patrons, but “if you take 25 percent of that, you still only get four customers in there.”
Meseroll said that with the surge in take-out orders, she’s had to turn the process of handling all those orders into a something of a mathematical equation, where she would chart out which orders are placed, the time of day they are placed and when people want to pick them up.
“If you want to pick up at a busy time, you should call in at 2 o’clock, because by 4 o’clock, the 6 o’clock hour is filled, I can’t take any more orders from 6 to 7.”
Back up north, 15 miles inland from Asbury Park in Colts Neck, the owner of the historic Colts Neck General Store and Deli, a 168-year-old establishment, also wondered whether the outdoor dining aspect could bear enough fruit.
“I’ve got a couple of tables and chairs outside, in the back and in front. I have a front porch on the front of the store, I do have seating out there,” said Mary Pahira, the 29-year-old owner, who took over in 2017. “Obviously it’s going to be nowhere near what it would have been for the amount of people inside.”
The store had its doors closed for several weeks at the height of the pandemic, and all the staff were let go. But there was a bright side, Pahira said. The closings allowed for long-term upkeep, and she opened an old window, “covered up for decades.”
“We replaced it with one that’s split, now it looks like a drive-through,” she said. “I feel like for the most part, every day, more and more people do feel comfortable.”
The staff have all come back, and things are slowly looking up.
‘A great approach’
Up north, restaurant owners, as well as local officials and business leaders, were somewhat more confident about the prospects of outdoor dining.
“I don’t see a downside,” said Carl Goldberg, principal at Canoe Brook Development, which owns properties across Hudson, Essex and Morris counties, and in New York City, several of which house restaurants.
“I think, in communities I’m familiar with, like Morristown and Westfield, where there are a lot of small restaurants, and there are downtown streets that can be made to pedestrian-only facilities, to give these restaurants an opportunity to expand outdoor seating, I think that’s a great approach.”
Goldberg sits on the facilities and construction subcommittee of the governor’s Restart and Recovery Advisory Council, tasked with offering industry-specific guidance to the Murphy administration on how to roll back COVID-19 restrictions in a way that would allow businesses to thrive.
“[H]opefully the opportunity for restaurants to reopen to create this pedestrian-friendly atmosphere and to do so in a way where they can serve wine, beer and cocktails will create situations where people will give it a try,” Goldberg said.
In the Bergen County village of Ridgewood, local officials plan to close down several streets to vehicles over the weekend, to create a “pedestrian mall.” That’s according to Scott Lief, president of the Ridgewood Chamber of Commerce.
The roads that would be closed in the business district are often the sites of street fairs and are swarmed by visitors and local residents during spectacles such as the July 4 fireworks. Closures would take some of the pressure off retailers with limited square-footage, and provide options for restaurant owners to expand their physical presence.
“Are we suddenly going to see a store with 50, 60 people in it? While every retailer would be ecstatic if they had that level pre-pandemic, I think that’s not realistic now,” Lief said.
Everybody was pushing for outdoor dining and excited for outdoor dining, but when you combine the outdoor dining with social distancing guidelines, a lot of our restaurants that traditionally have a permit for a sidewalk cafe actually are losing tables.
— Natalie Piniero, executive director of the Downtown Somerville Alliance
Local officials in Somerville – the Somerset County seat, which boasts a bustling downtown – are also tinkering with rules ahead of the reopening.
Years ago, the borough already permanently closed one road – Division Street – to cars, making it into a pedestrian plaza. And the plan is to close down the main thoroughfare of Main Street to create a “temporary outdoor seating program,” according to Natalie Piniero, executive director of the Downtown Somerville Alliance.
“Once the state health department finally issued those guidelines, for a lot of people” it was a “mad dash to make sure that they had everything.”
That ranged from acquiring hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment like gloves and masks, to actually setting up the borough-wide outdoor seating arrangement.
“Everybody was pushing for outdoor dining and excited for outdoor dining, but when you combine the outdoor dining with social distancing guidelines, a lot of our restaurants that traditionally have a permit for a sidewalk cafe actually are losing tables,” Piniero said.