Central Jersey restaurants open for business

Central Jersey restaurants open for business

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Nearly six months have passed since New Jersey restaurants have been allowed to serve diners indoors at 25% capacity, a mandate which changed Friday at 6 a.m.

Bridgewater Courier News

Nearly six months have passed since New Jersey restaurants have been allowed to serve diners indoors. 

But even when that mandate changed after Gov. Phil Murphy announced restaurants could begin serving diners at 25% capacity at 6 a.m. Friday, customers still weren’t running to their old favorite seats by the window. 

With the sun shining, the humidity at bay and a breeze wafting through the 80-degree air in Central Jersey at lunchtime, who could blame them. 

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“It’s lovely out,” said Jason DiCampli, an Edison resident who had lunch outdoors Friday at Hailey’s Harp in Metuchen. “Even if there was no coronavirus and everything was completely open, I would still want to sit out here right now.”

At Hailey’s Harp, although many of the 10 outdoor tables were filled at lunchtime, no one was inside at the Irish pub’s 10 socially distanced tables surrounded by signs reminding people to stay 6 feet apart. 

According to Gov. Phil Murphy, who tweeted the indoor dining announcement early on Aug. 31, transmissions of COVID-19 have reached a point low enough that he feels comfortable allowing restaurants to resume serving indoors, if only at one-quarter volume.

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Hailey’s Harp in Metuchen on Friday, Sept. 4 at lunchtime, following the return of indoor dining in New Jersey. (Photo: Alexander Lewis/Staff Photo)

Daily percent positivity (the amount of COVID tests that come back positive) in New Jersey hovers around 2% and the rate of transmission has dipped to under 1% for several days.

Hailey’s Harp owner Mo Atzbi said he felt “once bitten, twice shy” when it came to indoor dining prep after Murphy announced on June 22 that indoor dining could open at 25 percent capacity on July 2. Murphy rolled back that decision on June 29, saying it would be irresponsible for him to allow indoor dining considering how much overcrowding at outdoor dining areas and shoddy mask-wearing by restaurant staff and customers was taking place.

The false start was another financial hit for restaurants that spent in some cases tens of thousands of dollars on food, plexiglass barriers and personal protective gear to prepare for the opening.

Regardless, Atzbi said Hailey’s Harp has “been prepping for this the entire time.” He’s hoping that now, he can see some of the faces indoors that he hasn’t seen since dining establishments were told to shut their doors at 8 p.m. March 16.

“Labor Day Weekend normally isn’t a huge weekend in our area, but I think enough people will miss the place that they will want to come in,” he said. “We’re looking forward to treating people again.”

Hailey’s Harp manager Maura Flood said that throughout the week, the restaurant has gotten several calls about indoor reservations, allowed party sizes and if they could sit at the Hailey’s bar (sorry, not yet, but maybe next week). 

“Inside has more of that sense of community,” said Flood, surrounded by the pub’s signature Irish flags, local memorabilia and bright, yellow walls. “As much as we try to contribute to that outside, they miss the camaraderie and walking around and seeing everyone. It’s a better experience — you’re not in a parking lot or on a sidewalk.” 

However, the question remains of how comfortable most people are with indoor dining. At Hailey’s Harp, 40-50% of its business is still takeout.

“I wish I could say I think that people feel comfortable with indoor dining in New Jersey,” Atzbi said. “I do think people want to get back to normal, but there is also a sector of the public who won’t come inside.”

Both DiCampli and his lunch companion, John Tonra, also of Edison, both feel comfortable with indoor dining, and especially so at Hailey’s Harp, Tonra said.  

READ: Light, airy and fried? Fried pizza in NJ, NY breaks the rules

“If we were coming with a larger group, I would be happy to go inside,” Tonra said. “Tomorrow I’m looking forward to some college football games, so I’ll probably sit inside to watch those since it’s harder to see the TV from outside.” 

Similarly to Hailey’s Harp, at Kyma in Somerville at lunchtime, many of the restaurant’s 16 outdoor tables were filled but no diners had asked to sit at the 10 available indoor tables. 

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Kyma in Somerville on Friday, Sept. 4 at lunchtime, following the return of indoor dining in New Jersey. (Photo: Alexander Lewis / MyCentralJersey)

“It’s a beautiful day,” said Charlie Walker, a New Hope, Pennsylvania, resident who was dining at Kyma. “But since the pandemic started, I’ve only eaten outside. If its not an option, I’ll skip it. Come winter, maybe I’ll reconsider, but right now I wouldn’t do it.” 

Although Kyma owner Chris Stamataros was excited when the indoor dining announcement was made, he thinks that with September’s pleasant weather and the public’s comfort level with indoor service, many will prefer outdoor seating for the time being. That’s better for Kyma, too.

“Everyone is short-staffed right now, so we want to make it as easy as possible for our staff and try to fill up outdoor dining first,” Stamataros said. “Of course, though, we will seat someone inside if they request it. When it rains it’ll help, and right now, it’s a good time to test it out to get ready for the winter.”

Since the spacious restaurant has an open concept, it wasn’t a heavy lift to set Kyma up for indoor service, said Stamataros — diners sit at every other table, a hand sanitizer station is near the hostess stand and tables are sanitized after use.

READ: Oink and Moo BBQ replacing Main Street Gourmet Deli in Somerville

Still, Stamataros anticipates business remaining heavily takeout — he said the outdoor tables sometimes fill, but 35-40% of business is still takeout.

“I saw a thread on Facebook where someone asked, ‘What is the first restaurant everyone is going to dine at?’ And a lot of the answers were, ‘I’m still going to cook at home or order takeout,’” he said.  

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Kyma in Somerville on Friday, Sept. 4 at lunchtime, following the return of indoor dining in New Jersey. (Photo: Alexander Lewis/Staff Photo)

Restaurant owners have been doing whatever they can to stay in business — pivoting to takeout and delivery, setting up mini markets in their dining rooms and offering groceries to-go. Gradually, the government allowed restaurants to sell liquor for home consumption and, as of June 15, serve diners outdoors.

READ: Metuchen restaurants: 2 new open, 2 more to come

In March, the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association predicted that 10% of the state’s 25,000 restaurants would permanently close due to the coronavirus pandemic. Three months later, the number of anticipated restaurant closures climbed to 23%. Today that number is 35%.

“I have spoken to a lot of business owners and 25% capacity is still not enough to keep the restaurant business afloat,” said Atzbi. “We have the next  six (to) eight  weeks, but then things have to change.”

Contributing: Rebecca King 

Jenna Intersimone (Photo: ~File)

Jenna Intersimone has been a staff member at the USA Today Network New Jersey since 2014, after becoming a blogger-turned-reporter following the creation of her award-winning travel blog. To get unlimited access to her stories about food, drink and fun, please subscribe or activate your digital account today. Contact: JIntersimone@Gannett.com or @JIntersimone

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