The six Republicans and three Democrats on the Atlantic County Board of Freeholders unanimously voted this week to ask Gov. Phil Murphy to reopen indoor dining and other restricted businesses quickly in the county.
It was unusual for a board that often votes along party lines, but many cited the dire repercussions for the entire region if it doesn’t happen soon.
“I was surprised we had Democrats come and agree with us, but I’m not making this political,” said Freeholder Director Frank Formica, a Republican and co-sponsor of the resolution, along with Republicans Amy Gatto and Richard Dase. “This was ... nine people fighting for the lives of constituents of Atlantic County.”
Murphy said this week he had not made any decisions on when to reopen indoor dining. He had at one point said it could reopen July 2 along with casinos, but the governor changed his mind on indoor dining at the last minute.
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Formica said Murphy cannot wait any longer to allow restaurants to reopen indoor dining.
“If this goes beyond another couple of weeks ... you are going to see iconic restaurants fall,” Formica said. The resolution asked Murphy to reopen Atlantic County’s restaurants, and possibly bars, gyms and movie theaters at limited capacity with health and safety requirements immediately.
Atlantic County restaurants have had three months of hurry and nine months of worry, he said. If restrictions on them last all summer, they will never be able to put aside the resources they need to survive the winter.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced Thursday that restaurants in Philadelphia will be allowed to reopen for indoor dining Sept. 8, just after Labor Day. Restaurants outside the city have been providing indoor dining for some time.
Also Thursday, the Garden State Initiative released an analysis showing New Jersey’s unemployment rate is 3.5% above the national average, in large part because the state’s indoor dining ban continues to batter the hospitality sector.
It also said New Jersey is one of just three states that still has an indoor dining ban.
Democratic Freeholder Caren Fitzpatrick voted for the resolution along with Democrats Ernest Coursey and Ashley Bennett.
“It was the reason to ask the governor to consider the fact we are not Hudson County, not Essex County,” Fitzpatrick said. “We live in such a tourismcentric area, and the outdoor dining is only going to last a little bit longer.”
Fitzpatrick is Senior Director of Finance & Administration at Meet AC, an economic development organization that brings meetings, conventions and trade shows to Atlantic City. She was also in the restaurant business for many years as founder of Fitzpatrick’s Deli in Somers Point.
“We are going to see some permanent losses,” Fitzpatrick said of the area’s restaurants, which have been restricted to outdoor dining and takeout.
She said the county’s low population meant it didn’t qualify for CARES Act funding.
“If we are too sparsely populated for CARES money, maybe we are too sparsely populated for (keeping restaurants closed),” Fitzpatrick said.
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, a Republican, said he’s heard the Democrats are taking some criticism for supporting a Republican resolution linked to him.
“They didn’t vote in favor of Republican Denny Levinson, or against Democrat Phil Murphy,” Levinson said. “They voted what was right.”
Levinson said there are no facts or data behind the decision to keep indoor dining closed.
“They are gambling in casinos right now, but can’t go into the restaurants,” Levinson said. “People can go into Sam’s Club or Walmart or Target, where they’re loaded with people, and a restaurant can’t be at 25% capacity?”
Levinson blamed Murphy’s advisers.
“The governor is a charming man, the unfortunate part about it is, he is ill advised,” Levinson said. “There has to be consistency and sanity in these proclamations.”