‘Every increase in percentage helps’: N.J. restaurants can now open to 50% capacity

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Kathleen Rana can now seat up to 22 customers at her Hamilton Township restaurant, Jersey Girl Cafe, since New Jersey has relaxed its pandemic restriction to 50% capacity. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Kathleen Rana can now seat up to 22 customers at her Hamilton Township restaurant, Jersey Girl Cafe, since New Jersey has relaxed its pandemic restriction to 50% capacity. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Restaurants in New Jersey are now able to welcome more patrons into their dining rooms.

As of 6 a.m. Friday, indoor capacity has been raised from 35% to 50%, six months after indoor dining resumed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Gyms, barbershops, and salons also have increased capacity. The increase in capacity is welcomed news to many restaurateurs.

“Every increase in percentage helps,” said Paul Barone, owner of Villa Barone in Collingswood. “Whether it be 50, 60 … as long as it keeps increasing.”

Like other restaurants, Barone pivoted to keep his Camden County business going including doing more takeout and delivery orders. He did get assistance from the state with grants and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans.

“We’re on the right path, so I’m all for it,” Barone said.

When indoor dining resumed last September, restaurants had to limit their capacity to 25%. Then, as coronavirus cases started going up in November to highs not seen since the spring, Gov. Phil Murphy prohibited bars, restaurants, and banquet halls from serving indoors overnight after 10 p.m. The Murphy administration lifted the restriction and bumped indoor dining capacity up to 35% in February.

Kathleen Rana, chef and owner of Jersey Girl Café in Hamilton, said the increase in capacity is good.

“Just two weeks ago, we had some ladies in and they sat and chatted for hours,” she said. “It was just really nice to see that again.”

The Jersey Girl Café in Hamilton Township has survived the pandemic with limited capacity and outdoor seating. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Back in November, Rana estimated that business was down at her Mercer County spot by about 25 to 30%. She now says things are “slowly, but surely” getting better. While she will be able to welcome twice as many people into her dining room from the fall — 12 to 24 — she says it will not affect her café much.

“We’re not really normally packed,” she said, “so if we do have another group that wants to come in and sit, we have the seating.”

Normal capacity for Rana’s café is typically under 50. She has placed signs indicating that a table was sanitized so people know where to sit. To limit capacity, she and her team opted to decorate, setting up a dinner party for 10 with décor that changes every month.

Seasonal decorations cover the tables where no one can sit at the Jersey Girl Cafe in Hamilton Township. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“We make it for the holidays and seasonal and make it something nice to look at,” she said, adding they did not want to do what many restaurants have done with stacked tables, chairs, and yellow “caution” tape.

“The dining room is a stage and it really needs to be set for people because people still come in,” she said.

Rana said she believes as the vaccine rollout continues, more people will be confident enough to go out to eat at a restaurant. That belief is also shared by Glen McCarthy, general manager of Klee’s Bar and Grill in Seaside Heights. McCarthy said that the increase in capacity is “a good step in the right direction,” but adds “it’s a little bit long overdue.”

Business at Klee’s “has been steady,” according to McCarthy, with people getting food to go if they are not comfortable dining in.

“A lot more people are comfortable coming in and sitting down and having a couple of drinks with something to eat,” he noted.

But McCarthy said Murphy should “get off of the six-foot spacing” requirement because it would prevent some establishments from having enough room to increase their capacity to 50%.

“We’re lucky that we do have extra rooms that we can use and don’t usually utilize during the day that we’ll use all the time right now,” he said adding that the requirement of selling alcohol with something to eat is putting an extra burden on a lot of businesses.

Still, McCarthy hopes that things progress to where bar seating is allowed again and that the spacing requirement is removed.

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