You Can Dine Outdoors — But This is What ‘Outdoors’ Now Means in NJ
To paraphrase one prominent Democrat: It all depends on what the meaning of the word "outdoors" is.
Facing criticism from restaurants that say they've been subject to uneven enforcement for current state rules that prohibit indoor dining — but allow outdoor dining — another prominent Democrat, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, Wednesday issued a clarification that he said will let more restaurants operate.
He's amending his own executive orders to explicitly allow dining in areas that have fixed roofs, but at least two open sides and at least 50 percent of the "wall" space open to the outdoors.
"If you can open that up, that's going to be considered outdoor dining," Murphy said.
The move comes just weeks after Murphy himself was spotted — and photographed — at a covered area at Martell's Waters Edge in Berkeley, as rain poured down on patrons. A picture spread widely on social media made it appear the governor was indoors, with walls around him and a bar in front. The website More Monmouth Musings ran a post based on the pictures, headlined "Murphy dines indoors in violation of his COVID orders." State Sen. Declan O'Scanlon tweeted a screenshot of a Facebook post that alleged Murphy dined indoor at Martell's — with pictures of Murphy around the bar, posing with patrons and signing autographs — with the message "Wow. The hypocrisy is astounding."
But Rich Sorge, the manager of the restaurant, located on Barnegat Bay in the Bayville section of the township, said Martell's has a very large outdoor tiki deck for both dining and a bar. He said the photos on social media show Murphy there.
In the weeks since, several restaurants say they've been subjected to uneven treatment by local authorities.
Just a couple days into the grand opening of Sand House Kitchen in Ocean City, owner Robert Idell said he was forced to close a covered area because it had "1/16th plastic paneling to cover from UV rays and rain."
Idell said apologetic local officials handed him a copy of Murphy's directive from June 26, which states establishments are “permitted to offer in-person service at outdoor areas, defined as open air spaces without a fixed roof, besides a temporary or seasonal awning or cover.”
There had been no further specification within the directive, including whether such an awning or cover needs to be unattached from the building.
Otts Tavern in Delran had operations closed last Thursday because of the same issue, owner Craig Bigley said.
“Outside of the arbitrary difference in 'fixed roof' outdoor space and parking lot tents, the varying degree of enforcement across the state is also infuriating,” Bigley said.
Dadz Bar and Grill in Lumberton said on its Facebook page on July 3 that one of its decks had been shut for having a fixed roof structure, too.
Representatives of all three restaurants told us Wednesday they're relieved by the clarification in Murphy's new order.
Idell said the change is a "major weight off his shoulders." His HMRX Group manages 5 restaurants in Ocean City, the newest of them being Sand House Kitchen.
Idell said the main appeal of the newest property was that the restaurant is about "80% open air" and so was thought of as a saving grace for their restaurant group as pandemic restrictions continue. They had already been planning to renovate the new roof, taking it off and replacing it with a thatched, ‘tiki’ style covering to get through the season, when he heard about the announced change Wednesday.
But several Jersey Shore restaurants, in Oceanport and Point Pleasant Beach, as well as in Mount Laurel, with extensive covered areas, appeared to be operating this week without issue — as was Martell's.
Murphy shut down all dining in March, allowing restaurants to offer only take-out and delivery services, in a series of executive orders intended to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. He allowed outdoor dining, with limited capacity, to resume last month.
The governor had previously said he expected to allow indoor dining to resume with restrictions on July 2, but just days before announced at his daily press briefing indoor dining was being postponed indefinitely. Several restaurant owners complained that they'd already purchased supplies and spent time and money preparing their facilities.
— Includes previous reporting by Erin Vogt and Dan Alexander