NJ Restaurants Await Indoor Dining as 18%-20% of Independent Eateries Perish

There were approximately 20,000 restaurants in New Jersey at the beginning of March that employed some 350,000 workers across all 21 counties.

But after experiencing a March 16 coronavirus-related shutdown that first allowed solely for take-out and delivery – and on June 15 permitted some outdoor dining – the number of restaurants is dwindling.

Marilou Halvorsen, president and CEO of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association, estimates that between 18%-20% of smaller, independent eateries “are not going to come back from the pandemic,” even if indoor dining were permitted immediately.

Their demise stems not merely from an obvious inability to serve customers, but also in part from many restaurants deciding not to avail themselves of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), since many felt they would not be able to retain employees. Smaller eateries additionally don’t have large capital-accessing capacities when compared to larger restaurant chains, Halvorsen says.

And while the New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control has recently issued more than 640 permits for outdoor beverage consumption and, in a related move, municipalities are at times closing streets to accommodate outdoor dining – these arrangements are simply not feasible for thousands of eateries which are then remanded to income-limiting takeout and delivery only.

Awaiting Indoor Dining

Gov. Phil Murphy has long touted that public health metrics guide his decisions to reopen parts of the economy on certain dates via his now-famous “data determines dates” statement. However, the metrics he wants to see to allow for indoor dining or other activities remain a mystery to many.

Halvorsen did speak of a next state reopening phase (which would include indoor dining): “We are kind of hearing – as we are sure lots of other people are [too] – that the next [reopening] phase will be somewhere around the July 4 weekend.”

Even if that were true, Murphy’s moves can nonetheless be unpredictable, with, for example, the lifting of Executive Order No. 107’s “stay-at-home” component announced suddenly and unexpectedly on Tuesday, June 9.

Time is of the essence for indoor dining, with Halvorsen saying, “… every weekend we lose in the summer [we] just can’t get back. A member [restaurant] described it pretty well: One weekend in the summer is like 30 days in the wintertime, for them.”

When indoor dining is eventually permitted, the industry is prepared: Although the New Jersey Department of Health has not yet issued guidelines for indoor dining, the industry is envisioning procedures such as forbidding customers from loitering on the premises and moving tables at least six feet apart, to using disposable and/or smartphone menus and contactless payments.

Consumers’ fears about the coronavirus pandemic are also another factor affecting eateries, even though restauranteurs are taking near surgical-like measures to ensure wellness, with the fear of even one potentially ill person perhaps motivating them.

The protocols New Jersey eateries have in place “are far different than what we see in a lot of other businesses,” Halvorsen says.

She asserts, “It is certainly safer to go to a restaurant than, for example, [a large home improvement store] with 400 people milling around.”

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