The seasons are changing. A beautiful summer at the shore turns to the crisp air, cold nights, and warm days for which a Jersey Shore autumn is known. The beauty of the season exists in violent equilibrium with the sense of impending dread, growing amidst the owners and employees of our food and beverage industry with each day of cooler weather. What restaurant can survive a winter at the shore – or anywhere in New Jersey for that matter – with a 25% indoor capacity limit?
I represent the people of Atlantic City, which has been the hardest hit area in the state due to both the economic impact of the novel coronavirus and the subsequent government restrictions. Atlantic County has an unemployment rate of 24% that is 10% higher than the state average (bls.gov). Atlantic City’s unemployment rate is 10% higher than the county at 34%. One in three people in my city are jobless.
The Atlantic City area has a heavy reliance on the hospitality and food/beverage industries. Many restaurants found a way to survive and employ people this summer through the ingenuity of their outdoor dining set-ups. That additional outdoor seating capacity on sidewalks, parking lots, and closed streets enabled the economics of their restaurants to work. Outdoor dining is on borrowed time. Who will opt for dining outside when they have to wear a heavy coat and gloves to stay warm during their meal?
Atlantic City’s City Council passed my resolution at our September meeting calling on Governor Phil Murphy to increase indoor dining capacity to 50%. Our restaurants need this additional indoor dining capacity to survive the fall/winter.
New Jersey has an impressive culinary scene. The Atlantic City-area boasts of some of the state’s best restaurants and bars. Keeping indoor dining capacity at 25% risks irreparable damage to the hospitality industry, the strength of which is essential for the survival of our area. Pennsylvania is already at a 50% indoor dining capacity. Maryland is at 75% indoor dining capacity. New Jersey is overdue in moving to at least a 50% indoor dining capacity. Even with 50% indoor dining capacity some of our restaurants may not survive the cold weather.
There has been an emphasis from state leadership on the phrase that “public health leads to economic health.” In this case, it is also true that economic health contributes to public health. The move from 25% to 50% indoor dining capacity will help our people; increasing the number of jobs and the strength of our restaurant businesses. There is a dignity to work that too many of our people have been deprived of through the restrictions placed on our hospitality industry. It is time for indoor dining capacity to increase to 50%. The hard-working men and women of our restaurant industry need it.
Jesse O. Kurtz is Atlantic City’s 6th Ward Councilman. @CouncilmanKurtz