NJ diner reopens despite indoor dining ban

By Brenda Flanagan, NJTV News

Breakfast patrons dined al fresco at the Frenchtown Cafe, which offers seating for about 30 on the patio. But 54 seats inside remained empty under the Murphy administration’s continued lockdown on indoor dining in New Jersey. Cafe diners don’t mind as long as the weather stays nice.

“I think especially having a baby, I’m not sure we’ll really dine in, in the fall and winter,” said Madison resident Evan Stockwell.

“Getting back to normal would be great. I miss going out,” said diner Joyce Slack.

Owner Rosella Caloieri agrees. She’s fed up with waiting on the governor for an update.

“We don’t see our future so we don’t know what’s happening because there’s no plan on reopening restaurants. There’s nothing said, or nothing planned, to start us back up. And what happens when the weather gets bad? What happens to all the restaurants?” asked Caloieri.

Caloieri’s struggling. The lockdown’s closed more than 20% of New Jersey’s 25,000 full-service restaurants. And the Frenchtown Cafe’s at a particular disadvantage having to compete with restaurants located right across a quaint Delaware River Bridge from Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania’s allowed indoor dining since June, although officials did dial it back from 50% of capacity to 25% in July. Philadelphia restaurants will be able to reopen their doors to diners at 25% starting Sept. 8.

“It’s sad, because you can go across the bridge and go to any restaurant there and it’s only a stone’s throw away. So for us it’s very difficult, especially on days that it’s raining because it shuts us down,” Caloieri said.

“I did eat inside when it was raining over there, but they had people 10 feet apart. It was very comfortable,” said patron Sean Gilday.

Meanwhile, at the Lakeside Diner in Ocean County, owner Brian Brindisi defiantly opened for business with indoor seating again Monday. He’s already received more than 10 citations for violating the governor’s executive order. He expects to get another one for opening Monday. A couple dozen protesters gathered in support.

The governor  said he’s talked to to the state’s restaurant association and they’re, “trying to get to yes.” But on Friday, Murphy doubled down on the indoor dining ban and singled out the Lakeside Diner.

“Indoor dining when we are not allowing it and when we have so much evidence, by the way, health experts coming out today in the press overwhelmingly, it’s irresponsible, selfish behavior. And so the answer is you’re damn right we’re going to enforce it,” Murphy said.

Sen. Declan O’Scanlon says Murphy could take a regional approach by safely opening counties with very low COVID-19 positive case counts. Murphy’s rejected the idea.

“It is outrageous that we’ve needlessly inflicted this much pain on the restaurant industry, on the gym industry. For the governor’s staff and the governor to have the attitude that somehow it’s whiny suburbanites who want the pleasure of indoor dining by candlelight is garbage,” O’Scanlon said. “We lose businesses every single day that we continue to drag our feet, and there is no scientific justification for it. Our rate of spread, our rate of infection is no better than all our surrounding states who have had indoor dining for months.”

At the Frenchtown Cafe, which just reopened after a bad fire a couple years ago, it’s another a loyal crowd.

“Before you know it it’s going to be winter and then we’re going to have a choice. We don’t know if we’re going to be able to go inside or not. So these poor restaurants, this is their only way to survive,” said Frenchtown Cafe diner Jill Slack.