It would be easy to dismiss the latest controversy at Cuban Pete’s in Montclair as just another reckless restaurant owner gone rogue.
For months, Dominick Restaino has ignored Gov. Phil Murphy’s dining mandates, first being cited for illegal indoor dining over the summer and now filling his dining room well beyond the current 25% capacity limit.
“If I have to, I will go to jail,” Restaino told NorthJersey.com.
Restaino would fit right in at The Lakeside Diner in Lacey, which began allowing indoor dining in June, well before it was reinstated by Murphy in September. They were cited by the authorities at least 10 times for it, but kept reopening even when the police called a locksmith and changed the locks on them.
While these restaurants are largely in the wrong, taking public safety into their own hands and ignoring executive orders informed by health experts, they will surely not be the last ones to bend or break the rules.
To quote a little-known TV show, winter is coming in New Jersey, and for many establishments, cold temperatures make outdoor dining untenable. And when outdoor dining goes, so do the profits.
There’s a reason the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association’s plan called for 50% capacity at restaurants this summer. A dining room open at 25% is, at best, a supplement to outdoor dining. Once that’s no longer an option, most restaurants won’t be able to make money.
Their next move quickly becomes arduous: Choose the health of customers and staff, or the health of the business that pays your mortgage and feeds your family. It’s an unfair, heartbreaking position for owners after seven months of uncertainty and tumult. For every industry feel-good story there’s many more tales of closure and financial woe.
It’s an inevitability that more restaurants will try to split the difference and push the boundaries of their dining room capacity — a number customers readily do not know — and pray they don’t cause an outbreak or spur a visit from the health department. A few more tables can’t hurt, right?
Those who deftly avoid packing their dining rooms will likely get away with it, too, as some rules already aren’t being enforced. NJ Advance Media released a project last month detailing how virtually no restaurants are following Murphy’s customer mask protocols because they are basically impossible to police.
Murphy said late last month that he hoped an increase in indoor dining was coming “sooner than later.” But with cases rising across the state, it’s safe to assume it won’t be coming until later — especially with some evidence that restaurants could be spreading the virus.
Until then, restaurants will either have to make do with limited capacity or risk potential legal ramifications, which so far haven’t gone far beyond citations.
Cuban Pete’s keeps filling its dinner service because it knows it can. Restaino says he’ll go to jail if he has to because he knows that likely won’t happen. He’s calling the state’s bluff.
Even if Cuban Pete’s does get a dozen more citations and is forced to close under public scrutiny, there’s no elite troop of restaurant monitors to count guests inside New Jersey’s thousands of restaurants big and small. Most places will go unchecked.
Then responsibility falls to the customer: Until there’s a vaccine, dine at your own risk. If you feel uncomfortable, leave. And if you’re certain a restaurant is breaking the executive order and putting people at risk, take a photo. Get it to go viral. Then maybe something will come of it.
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Jeremy Schneider may be reached at [email protected].