‘I’d Do It Again,’ Says NJ Diner Owner Who Reopened Ahead of State
LACEY — With indoor dining reopened for New Jersey restaurants at 25% capacity as of Friday, an Ocean County restaurant owner who’s racked up three months’ worth of violations since reopening on his own said he would do it all over again.
“Last I counted, it was either 21 or 22 citations, so far,” Brian Brindisi, owner of the Lakeside Diner in the Forked River section of the township, said Thursday to us.
Brindisi said he has not been to court yet as each time the court appearance has been postponed. A hearing now is scheduled for Wednesday, Sep. 9.
Each violation of Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive orders stemming from the pandemic is a disorderly persons offense, which can be punishable by a fine of $1,000.
Brindisi also was ordered to close for state health violations and was cited for contempt of court on July 31 after ignoring that order.
Brindisi said restaurant reopening guidelines issued this week by Murphy’s administration for restaurants are the same as how he’s been operating since June.
Those restrictions from Murphy and the Department of Health include the limit to 25% indoor capacity, at least 6 feet between tables, and masks required by staff and patrons when not seated for their meals.
The diner typically seats up to 65 people — self-imposed reduced indoor capacity has been allowing for roughly 16 diners at a time, the Asbury Park Press reported in June.
Despite the uncertain but sizable mound of violations he now is faced with, Brindisi said he stands by his June decision to reopen for indoor dining, more than three months earlier than the state allowed.
“I did it the right way,” Brindisi said, by developing a plan based on what other states were doing with reopening.
Brindisi said he even recently received an “Ultimate Climate” surface and air purification machine, donated and installed by a local resident, Jeff Lentz. Brindisi said the device hooked up to the air conditioning unit runs continuously and helps rid the air of viruses.
Brindisi said if one small business can be saved by his struggle to call attention to “our constitutional rights,” then it’s worth it.
“The small business is the backbone of our community and they’re really really struggling right now.”
He said he does not feel that elected officials are helping, but rather putting pressure on small business owners to stay closed.
“Some people have worked their whole lives to get where they are, and then — they just have to throw it away and I just can’t see that, I have a hard time dealing with that and that’s why I’m fighting so hard. It’s not just for me, it’s for other small businesses.”
Brindisi said he questions the “motivation” of the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, which Brindisi said went to his landlord to try and have him kicked off of the property amid his contempt of court order.
As of Thursday evening, the state Office of the Attorney General had not responded to a request for the updated count of violations against Brindisi.
Brindisi said he wants to make sure everyone visiting his diner feels safe, and he hopes that other restaurants scrambling to reopen for the Labor Day holiday weekend are able to "make a bit of money."
He said those not in the industry do not realize all the preparations that lead up to such a relaunch after months of waiting — from ordering food, to hiring and training staff to handle what could be a bustling crowd.