New Jersey restaurants and bars are struggling with what some owners call uneven enforcement of which outdoor dining areas are allowed during the pandemic under Gov. Phil Murphy's executive order.

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 is no further specification within the directive, including whether such an awning or cover needs to be unattached from the building.

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“We are working with the local police to get it sorted out. But it's going to result in us having to put out extra money during this already challenging time,” Idell said.

He said removing the paneling would mean ruining the $3,000 investment on outdoor ceiling fans.

Otts Tavern in Delran had its deck area shutdown to outdoor dining (courtesy Craig Bigley)
Otts Tavern in Delran had its deck area shutdown to outdoor dining (courtesy Craig Bigley)

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 to New Jersey 101.5 News.

Bigley also said he has heard of more temporary tent structures set up in restaurant parking lots being damaged by recent severe summer storms in south Jersey.

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.

Indoor dining at New Jersey restaurants has been suspended indefinitely as other states are seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases after having reopened restaurants more fully, according to Murphy last week.

Of outdoor dining areas allowed to operate, Top Golf in both Edison and Mount Laurel have permanent, shorter overhangs at its golf bays, where customers can get food service.

There also are some Jersey Shore restaurants, in Oceanport and Point Pleasant Beach, as well as in Mount Laurel, with extensive covered areas that appear to be operating without issue.

Martell's Water Edge in Bayville has shade canopies over tables on an outdoor deck, which surrounds a permanent structure currently not in use for dining. The distinction was unclear when the governor ate dinner there last month, further complicated by a downpour that led to a small crowd standing under the overhang.

During that time, a few photos were taken and shared on social media, leading to questions of whether Murphy had eaten inside, which the owner said was not the case.

The state Department of Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment on outdoor dining enforcement.

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