New Jersey is relaxing its indoor masking and social distancing rules in time for Memorial Day Weekend. But some restaurants say while they welcome looser restrictions, they’re still facing significant worker shortages preventing them from serving more customers.
"We're so short-handed in the kitchen, it's crazy. Every Saturday night for the past three Saturday nights, me and my kids, all the owners we're busing tables.”
Calandra said for now his employees will continue to wear masks and Plexiglass shields separating customers from staff inside his bakeries will stay put.
With more than 4 million residents vaccinated against COVID-19, Governor Phil Murphy announced this week his state would join others in the tri-state region and no longer require face coverings inside restaurants, casinos, gyms and other publicly-accessible businesses. Those who are not vaccinated are still strongly urged to wear a face covering and socially distance.
Restaurant owner Marilyn Schlossbach, who runs Langosta Lounge in Asbury Park and four other restaurants on the Jersey Shore, said that’s a big burden to put on her already overworked staff.
“How can we ask people if they're vaccinated or not? How do we know that?" she said.
Murphy said individual businesses can still require masking or continue to keep groups six feet apart but Schlossbach said it’s much harder to regulate people’s behaviors without the state law to back it up.
“Now we have no excuse to tell them how to behave because we have nothing to back it up,” she said. “So when a customer wants to break the rules, you can tell them this isn't our choice.”
The rules, which take effect on Friday, come after more than 14 months of restrictions that crippled the restaurant industry and left thousands unemployed. Many business owners welcomed Murphy’s lifting of restrictions meant to keep people from congregating. Customers will no longer have to be seated at a table to order food and will be able to dance in bars and restaurants again.
“That's like the number one thing that was the hardest thing to enforce,” Calandra said. “Customers wanted to dance.”
He remembers a few months ago asking a 75-year-old couple slow-dancing by the piano in his restaurant to please sit down.
"It just broke my heart,” he said.
But Schlossbach, whose popular Shore spots can get packed in the summer months, is anxious about the potentially sudden influx of crowds this weekend. At one of her restaurants, Pop's Garage, she has one cook when before she had five.
She said some employees have changed industries and others remain on unemployment benefits. Schlossbach said she can’t afford to pay them more to come back and has already raised wages for tipped workers to meet state-mandated increases next year.
"For the first time in over 30 years, I'm praying the weather isn't great on a holiday weekend. I don't want it to be crazy busy," she said.
Schlossbach said restaurants weren't given enough time to prepare for the sudden change in rules. Additional tables she purchased are still on backorder and the band she hired is already scheduled to play during dinner, not when floor clears for dancing and her staff isn't fully trained.
She said she hopes customers will be patient this weekend and maybe, tip a little extra.