MIDDLETOWN — A owner of a restaurant accused of offering indoor dining — even as Gov. Phil Murphy and his wife had dinner on an outdoor patio Wednesday night — argues he's fully compliant with regulations that allow dining under certain covered areas without being classified as "indoors."

And the owner of the Nicholas Barrel and Roost restaurant said it's "silliness" to think otherwise.

The website MoreMonmouthMusings.com this week posted pictures of the governor eating outdoors at the Route 35 restaurant in Middletown on Wednesday night, as well as photos of a visit from Middletown Deputy Police Chief John Kaiser and a sergeant.

Murphy has acknowledged being there, and owner Nicholas Harary acknowledged to New Jersey 101.5 the police were investigating complaints his restaurant was in violation of executive orders by Murphy barring indoor dining.

The area where Murphy ate is not the area the complaints alleged should be considered "indoors."

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Murphy shut down all in-person restaurant dining in March in an effort to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. He's since issued new executive orders to relax those rules, allowing limited-capacity outdoor dining. He also issued an order clarifying that a permanent, covered structure with at least two open sides and 50 percent of its "total wall space" open counts as outdoors.

Murphy addressed the issue on Friday at an unrelated event and compared it to a similar incident at Martell's Water's Edge in Bayville, when right-leaning blogs and some social media posts accused him of eating indoors. Martell's has covered deck with two open walls.

"That's a local reality," Murphy said of the Middletown issue. "I don't show up with a tape measure and try to figure out whether or not the guy's got 50 percent of his walls open. If he doesn't then he deserves whatever is coming his way and if he does I wish him the best. But we were outside and had a really good meal, I might add."

Harary said he thinks he's in "good standing," and complaints against his restaurant might continue to come in "but it doesn't mean that what I'm doing is against what Executive Order #163's (allowing covered areas with open walls) intention was."

He said after recent renovations, during which his restaurant was closed, the covered area where patrons were seated "way over 50 percent" open — a contention the township's administrator disputes.

Harary said his restaurant, under normal circumstances, could seat 500 customers. The covered area where patrons have been eating seats 30, according to Harary.

But he did say the open walls were closed off for a time.

"The wind was blowing so hard that we had to close because we can't just have these doors open and the wind ripping through there like that. It's going to break the wine bottle chandelier. They were blowing back and forth and clanging together," Harary said.

Harary also said his restaurant has been dogged by false rumors that Murphy has eaten there indoors. But he said during the renovation in the spring, the restaurant was a construction zone where no one could have a meal.

Harary said he's been the target of death threats and getting special treatment because Murphy is a regular.

"I am a small business owner just like many of the people who are complaining. I have five businesses that all closed on the same day. Now I get to open because I followed Executive Order #163 and I'm the bad guy? Stop," Harary said.

Harary said he hasn't received a citation because of the complaints. Middletown Police spokesman Paul Bailey said the complaints against the restaurant are still under investigation.

Middletown Administrator Anthony Mercantante told Patch.com the town has gotten numerous complaints about indoor dining at the Nicholas Barrel and Roost, and the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office will determine whether to issue a summons.

Mercantante told Patch the restaurant's walls are "not even close to 50 percent" open. "He is barely at 25 percent." the news site quoted him saying.

Harary said he and Murphy are on opposite sides of the political fence and have discussed the executive order prohibiting indoor dining. Harary disagree on the matter, but he thinks Murphy believes that he is doing the right thing to save lives from coronavirus.

 

Middletown Police spokesman Paul Bailey said the complaints against the restaurant are still under investigation.

Murphy has signaled repeatedly in recent days he may authorize limited indoor dining soon.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ