KENILWORTH — More than 5 months since restaurants were ordered to shutdown indoor dining areas as the threat of COVID-19 spread was high last spring, a coalition of restaurant owners are pushing Gov. Phil Murphy for a reopening date.

Attilio Guarino, owner of Ava's Kitchen and Bar on North 21st Street in Kenilworth, said for restaurants like his, it's not a political issue but rather one of survival.

Guarino said with just 5 tables outside, he can't sustain his business much longer without at least a clear plan to reopen indoor dining.

He said of the roughly 100 restaurant owners who have voiced commitment to the self-imposed deadline for an answer from the governor on indoor dining, a majority so far are in Union, Monmouth and Hudson Counties.

As restaurant owners ask how they can join the campaign, Guarino said his answer has been "open your doors on the 8th," the Tuesday after Labor Day.

At the state's coronavirus press briefing on Wednesday, Murphy did hint that news of a relaunch of indoor dining could be coming sooner than later. When asked about a rumored date of Sept. 14, Murphy said he hopes "it's before then."

On one of his Facebook posts, Guarino said he will be ensuring that all patrons and staff will comply with all social distancing guidelines, face mask regulations and most importantly, "we will be using common sense."

Separately, a public awareness campaign dubbed "Restaurants are Essential Too" has been launched by three New Jersey organizations representing the restaurant and hospitality industry.

That effort, headed by Pan Gregorian Enterprises, along with the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association and Delaware Valley Purchasing Group, has said nearly 300,000 people remain unemployed due to limits for full-service restaurants, diners and venues.

Murphy previously had announced a July 2 reopening date for restricted indoor dining, but then delayed that reopening plan indefinitely, with just a few days notice.

On June 29, the governor said it was just too dangerous with the spread of COVID-19 more prevalent in other states that had reopened farther than NJ, mid-summer.

Since then, Murphy has not shared any specific measurements of coronavirus in the state that would prompt a reopening of indoor dining.

At the August 24 briefing, Murphy said "I’m not going to marry myself to a date yet but the data is unquestionably good of late."

On Sunday, New Jersey reported 306 new positive cases and 4 new confirmed COVID-19 deaths, with a rate of transmission of .87 and 480 hospitalizations stemming from coronavirus, according to the state's COVID-19 online dashboard.

When Murphy last delayed the reopening of indoor dining June 29, he tweeted that there were 1,000 hospitalizations and an average of 36 COVID-19 deaths a day in NJ.

"After crunching all the numbers, every which way, I came to the determination that without revenue from indoor dining, my business is not going to make it. Take-out orders and a couple of tables on the sidewalk will not sustain my business," Guarino said in an open letter to the governor posted to his restaurant's Facebook page.

As of Sunday, the post has been shared more than 2,000 times.

While most of Pennsylvania and New York have resumed indoor dining, Philadelphia is a week from its reopening plan while New York City's approach remains uncertain.

Philadelphia will resume indoor dining on September 8 with stringent rules according to city health officials. Restaurants in the city can operate at 25% of their normal indoor capacity with a maximum of four people per table.

Also in Philadelphia, indoor dining parties of more than 4 people will be seated at separate tables at least six feet apart. Servers must wear both masks and face shields for additional protection. Diners must wear masks when they aren’t seated at their table.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday that the return of indoor dining is based on how the city’s schools perform when they reopen September 10, as reported by Eater NY.

With previous reporting by Dino Flammia and David Matthau

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