Jersey Shore Rebellion Erupts Over State’s Slow Reopening

Asbury Park, N.J., is Murphy country.

In 2017, the Jersey Shore city, known for its urban flare and seaside charm, voted overwhelmingly in favor of Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a first-term Democrat who lives about 15 miles away.

Mr. Murphy held his election night victory party at Asbury Park’s huge brick Convention Hall. And his fellow Democrats control the diverse, mile-square city of 15,500 residents.

But that did not stop an insurrection linked to the coronavirus pandemic from brewing on the boardwalk.

Asbury Park’s City Council voted unanimously this week to let restaurants allow limited-capacity indoor dining starting on Monday, flouting Mr. Murphy’s reopening orders. The governor’s phased-in plan permits only outdoor dining to begin.

On Friday, Mr. Murphy countered, saying the state had taken the unusual step of suing the city to block it from letting its 80 restaurants fully reopen after efforts to “amicably resolve the issue” broke down.

“We have one set of rules,” Mr. Murphy said in announcing the lawsuit.

“There’s no question this virus is more lethal inside than outside,” he added. “There’s a method to what we’re doing here, folks.”

Hours later, after a judge granted the state’s request, Asbury Park officials reversed course, telling restaurant owners that they could be fined or lose their liquor licenses if they opened for indoor dining on Monday.

But city officials also said in a statement that they hoped the showdown with the governor would force him to quickly set a date for restaurants to reopen fully.

New Jersey has the second-highest number of Covid-19 deaths in the United States and is one of the last states in the country to ease restrictions on indoor dining as it moves to gradually lift a lockdown that was meant to slow the spread of the virus.

Last month, protesters in Texas and Michigan brandished guns while demanding a speedier reopening. A gym in South Jersey briefly reopened to publicly protest the state’s restrictions, as did a movie theater in Atlantic County that closed last week after facing what it called an “onslaught of citations.”

On Thursday, the mayor of Wayne, N.J., a Republican, set up a showdown with state officials by saying the township’s high schools would hold outdoor graduation ceremonies next week, three weeks ahead of a schedule that Mr. Murphy set for such ceremonies. The mayor, Christopher P. Vergano, did not return calls seeking comment.

Amy Quinn, Asbury Park’s deputy mayor, said the vote on Wednesday to allow indoor dining came after relentless complaints from small business owners.

She said that the city could no longer ignore the economic hardship that independently operated restaurants were facing, particularly when other retail establishments had been granted permission to begin to reopen.

“These aren’t big chains,” Ms. Quinn said. “They’ve poured their life savings into these restaurants. It’s heartbreaking. We felt like we needed to take a stand.”

Under Mr. Murphy’s plan, retail shops, nail and hair salons, tattoo parlors and houses of worship are scheduled to reopen soon at limited capacity. Schools may hold in-person summer school classes, and public pools can allow swimming.

But the governor has remained insistent that it was “too soon” for indoor dining, drawing a distinction between sedentary indoor activities and outdoor events.

For restaurant owners, the long weeks without customers have exacted a staggering financial toll.

“We’re crippled as an industry,” said Marilyn Schlossbach, the owner of Langosta Lounge, a restaurant and bar on the Asbury Park boardwalk. “Especially in these shore towns where every day is huge dollars that we’re losing.”

There are also logistical problems inherent in opening only outside seating, said Ms. Schlossbach, the chairwoman of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association. If, for example, it started to rain or get windy, she said, diners would have nowhere to go.

The rigid cleanliness protocols already required at restaurants make them uniquely prepared to handle the added threat of the virus, she said.

  • Updated June 12, 2020

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“If I can go to the supermarket and Home Depot and there’s 100 people in there shopping and walking all over the place, why can’t I go to a restaurant?” said Ms. Schlossbach, who owns two other Jersey Shore restaurants, which she said were dependent on the 12-week summer season for survival.

“If you don’t feel safe,” she said, “don’t go out to eat.”

A poll conducted last month by Rutgers’ Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling found that two-thirds of New Jersey’s residents were satisfied with the pace of reopening.

Attitudes along the Jersey Shore, where voters tend to be more conservative, were slightly less favorable, said Ashley Koning, the director of the polling institute.

“I don’t think that it’s a surprise here that we see this tug of war,” she said. “Obviously this is their prime season.”

Amy Russo, the owner of Toast, a breakfast and brunch restaurant in downtown Asbury Park, called the state’s reopening plan “arbitrary” and “illogical.”

“I respect the disease,” she said. “It’s real. I’m not discounting it. But what he is allowing to open versus what he’s not allowing to open makes no sense.”

John Farmer Jr., the director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and a former New Jersey attorney general, noted the continuing threat posed by the virus, which has killed at least 12,489 state residents.

He said the governor had no choice but to take legal action to quell Asbury Park’s open rebellion.

“If they allowed that to go forward without an injunction,” Mr. Farmer said, “it would absolutely open the floodgates and show he’s not serious about these orders.”

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