‘Definitely ready’: N.J. restaurants eager to restart indoor dining as state lifts restrictions

Kitchen workers prepare food in a restaurant inside the Hard Rock casino in Atlantic City N.J. on Sept. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

Kitchen workers prepare food in a restaurant inside the Hard Rock casino in Atlantic City N.J. on Sept. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

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Dinner reservations for this weekend are already filling up at Mr. Shrimp, a seafood restaurant and market in Belmar.

Like countless others across the Garden State, the restaurant will open to customers for indoor dining for the first time in more than five months on Friday as the state lifts a major restriction put in place in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Quite a few people have called and made their reservations and then called back just to verify, ‘Oh, we want to make sure we’re inside, not outside,’” said Vincent Petruzziello, owner of Mr. Shrimp. “It seems like there are people who are definitely ready to get back and sit down and enjoy a nice, comfortable meal inside.”

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Gov. Phil Murphy had resisted reopening restaurants for indoor dining too soon, warning that the sedentary nature of sitting down for a meal poses a high risk of coronavirus transmission. But restaurants and other businesses that serve food argued that their financial health hinged on being able to serve more customers.

Starting Friday, the state will allow restaurants to reopen for indoor service at 25% capacity, just in time to take advantage of the end-of-summer Labor Day weekend rush.

“I had one restauranteur tell me that a Saturday in the summer is like the whole month of January,” said Marilou Halvorsen, president and CEO of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association.

The association estimated 30% of New Jersey restaurants could close permanently as a result of the pandemic.

Corinne McCann Trainor, president of the Jersey Shore Chamber of Commerce, echoed the notion that restaurants are grateful to be able to reopen for indoor service, even if they wish it had come earlier.

“I think that they’re grateful that they’re able to open in any capacity for indoor dining,” she said. “My concern is that for so many of them it’s just a little bit too late.”

Murphy previously said indoor dining could resume in early July, but scrapped the plan due to coronavirus spikes in other states and reports that restaurant and bar patrons in New Jersey were ignoring face covering and social distancing rules.

Now, Halvorsen said restaurants are focused on getting back to work and complying with new health and safety guidelines for indoor dining.

She urged customers to speak up if they felt uncomfortable.

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“In the beginning, when we had outdoor dining, there was some concern about that as well. But I think as people did it and they saw how well it was being done and handled, people got more and more comfortable with it,” he said. “I think the same will be true for indoor dining.”

Restaurants that do reopen for indoor service will have to follow a list of new rules in addition to the capacity limits imposed by the state: Establishments will have to limit tables to eight people unless they are from the same household, situate tables at least six feet apart, require that customers wear face coverings inside except while eating or drinking, and only permit customers to order food and eat while they are seated.

Tim McLoone owns and operates six restaurants in New Jersey, mostly at the Jersey Shore. In March, McCloone had twelve restaurants, but because of the pandemic, he had to close six — two of them permanently and the other four because they could not accommodate outdoor dining.

He said indoor dining would be a welcome expansion at his restaurants, but he worried the 25% capacity restrictions would make it difficult to keep the business afloat as the weather gets colder and fewer people want to eat outside.

“We were out the other day and somebody was saying, ‘Oh, I love those first nights when you have to put on a sweatshirt,’” McLoone said. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I hate those first nights when you have to put on a sweatshirt because I know what’s coming.’”

Both McLoone, and Halvorsen, with the restaurant association, said the fact that Murphy was lifting the indoor dining restriction was a positive step, but they added that it would be little help to restaurants that couldn’t offer outdoor dining and have been effectively closed for nearly half a year.

“We really need to make sure that there’s some money for funding to keep them afloat and get them reopened,” Halvorsen said. “We do not want to lose the great culinary culture that we have in this state.”

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