‘We’re not knuckleheads’ – Restaurants deny breaking COVID rules
The owners of at least some of the 10 bars and restaurants that are facing liquor license suspensions over COVID-19 executive order violations say they weren't trying to disregard New Jersey's rules – and in some cases deny they did at all.
The claims come as Gov. Phil Murphy Monday said the state would continue to "name and shame" establishments that violate his executive orders, which – among other restrictions – limit indoor restaurant and car capacity to 25%, and set a 10 p.m. curfew on both.
Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control released the names of 10 bars and restaurants on Friday, saying they've been put on notice they are at risk of their liquor licenses.
The alleged violations range from offering indoor dining after 10 p.m. to not following social distance protocols to allowing liquor to be consumed at bars to having staffers who weren't wearing face coverings.
Joe Strippoli, owner of 30 Strikes bowling alley in Stratford, told New Jersey 101.5 that his business's violations of the curfew were the result of bad information he received from the Bowling Proprietors Association and the New New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association. He's accused of allowing the indoor business to be open after 10 p.m.
"I got back that we could sell liquor until 10 p.m. If we're selling liquor at 9:59, obviously they're not going to be done drinking by 10:01. That was the wrong information," Strippoli said. His business faces a 10-day suspension.
The business includes a bowling alley and a bar and restaurant area. Customers may also bring food and drink to the bowling area.
Strippoli said he did not sell anything after 10 p.m. inside his building, but customers had a half a pitcher of soda, a couple of beer bottles and food that bowlers were still eating past that point.
After Strippoli looked up the executive order himself, he said, he understood the governor's executive orders in fact bar consumption after 10 p.m.
"Starting the next day we're more vigilant and everybody stops selling at 9:30. We go around with trash cans taking everything away from everybody so that at 10 o'clock the place is clean and clear," Strippoli said. He added that liquor can still be sold at his outdoor bar, which is permitted under the governor's orders.
Business is down 50% since the coronavirus restrictions went into effect, Strippoli said.
"The 10' o clock rule put a big hit on the bowling. Younger people want to have a beer, a pizza at 10:30 or 11 at night. A lot of people stopped bowling," Strippoli said.
Another restaurant on the list, Reilly's Bar & Grill in Kearny, wrote on its Facebook page that "we're not closed and we're not knuckleheads" – referring to Murphy's name for violators of the executive orders.
The state is seeking a 30-day suspension of Reilly's liquor license for curfew violations, allowing patrons to consume food and drink while not seated and exceeding occupancy limits.
Kristen Rinaldi told New Jersey 101.5 she and the establishment's other owners were surprised to hear Reilly's name all over newscasts about the violations, and denied the restaurant was open past 10 p.m.
The day of the reported violation, Nov. 13, was the first day the curfew went into effect. Rinaldi said a police officer stopped by earlier in the day to remind the restaurant about the curfew.
"We're like 'we're going to close before 10 o'clock just so that they're not outside waiting for us.' We specifically closed prior to 10 o'clock," Rinaldi said, adding that the restaurant is awaiting a report report from the state. She said the restaurant's computer and security systems show it was closed.
The alleged occupancy violation, Rinaldi said, happened because two customers were waiting inside for a takeout order which made for 14 people inside at that moment, two over the restaurant's 25% capacity limit of 12.
"We're pretty strict about sitting in your chair. We've been following all the rules. That's why we're so upset about this. We just don't understand why this is happening," Rinaldi said.
Rinaldi said the restaurant plans to fight the violation in court on its own, as a lawyer is too costly due to the loss in business because of the limits on capacity. She said the restaurant has not been able to bring back its staff, and the owners have been working.
The George Street Ale House in New Brunswick on its Facebook page said the allegations have been "blown out of proportion," and is open for business serving both food and liquor.
The state says the restaurant allowed customers to sit at the bar, failed to enforce social distancing and face covering requirements.
Murphy, at Monday's coronavirus briefing shut the door on midnight New Year's Eve celebrations at restaurants, saying it's unlikely he'll relax his 10 p.m. rule.
He also said while the state has recently issued more citations for executive order violations, it doesn't appear more restaurants are flouting them. He said state and local authorities have stepped up enforcement as they stare down increasing case, hospitalization and death rates.