It wasn't long ago that New Jersey's restart was moving ahead smoothly, with a variety of different kinds of businesses getting the green light from Gov. Phil Murphy to reopen — at least partially — as COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalizations began to decline.

The state moved from Stage One to Stage Two in its plan for three stages before a "new normal," where most or all activities would return but new precautions would become commonplace. Murphy signaled Stage Three could be just weeks ahead.

Outdoor dining, most indoor retail stores, camps, outside pools, nail salons and tattoo parlors all resumed limited capacity operations. But right before indoor restaurant dining was set to be allowed to reopen July 2, Murphy abruptly pushed the pause button.

Murphy has expressed concern about novel coronavirus spikes in other states, mask-wearing and social distance sloppiness in Jersey, and the lack of circulating air in indoor restaurants as reasons why the reopening plan has been put on hold.

Marilou Halvorsen, the president of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, remains convinced indoor eateries should be allowed to operate at 25% capacity with strict sanitation protocols in place, as Murphy previously said would happen at the start of this month.

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She said otherwise the majority of them will be forced to close their doors forever.

“Every day the number of restaurants (closing) just goes up. This industry, I mean it’s just going to be decimated,” she said.

Halvorsen said other states where COVID-19 levels are spiking opened too soon, with too few  safeguards compared with what has taken place in Jersey — but that what is happening now in Jersey just doesn’t make sense.

“If you can ride a New Jersey Transit bus at regular capacity or go to church sitting side by side next to somebody who’s singing, it makes no sense that you can’t sit in a restaurant," Halvorsen said. "What we need to do is get people back to work and get the restaurants back open in some limited capacity.”

Because the Garden State is now stuck in Stage Two indefinitely, gyms and fitness centers have also been forced to continue to tread water — with no indication as to when they might be permitted to partially reopen, even with strict sanitary requirements in place.

Tom Trilivas, the owner of Top Shelf fitness centers in Lake Hopatcong and Rockaway, said many facilities across the state have already been forced to close down.

He said the process to determine who was allowed to remain open and who could not was discriminatory, because such factors as the square footage of the space and the air circulation of the facility were never considered, and because all fitness centers must still stay closed if they have the strictest sanitary protocols imaginable.

“I am not really sure what they are expecting people to do, and to me it almost seems deliberate,” he said. “Things are just not making sense anymore.”

Trilivas said “you need to have a balance of safety, some type of safety precaution and being able to make a living at the same time.”

He also said New Jersey businesses should not be penalized for the irresponsibility of other states and what has happened as a result of their actions, or inaction.

Halvorsen said she sees no reasonable explanation for the decisions the governor is making in this regard.

“Basically everybody but (restaurants), movie theater and the gyms are open. And he keeps talking about indoor activities, well there’s a lot of indoor stuff that’s happening at a very high capacity,” she said.

The governor has repeatedly said that data drives his decisions. But New Jersey's data has seen huge improvements over the height of the pandemic in the region in April. Hospitalizations, daily deaths and ventilator use are all a fraction of what they once were. And Halvorsen said that's left businesses with no clear metrics about what is needed in order to reopen indoor dining.

“I just want to know the fact about how these decisions are being made," she said.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com