TOMS RIVER, NJ — For years, the Office Lounge has been a spot where you knew you could stop in at midnight, park yourself on a seat at the bar and grab a late-night snack and a drink with friends.
The late-night service was something Phil Citta, who opened the restaurant in 1975, advocated from the start, said Nick Pagano, general manager of the restaurant at the corner of Main Street and Highland Parkway.
"If you don't stay open, people don't remember you," was Citta's reasoning for keeping the bar and restaurant open until 2 a.m. even if it cost him money during the late-night hours, Pagano said.
He's hoping the support of the Office Lounge's long-time customers will keep them coming back now that Gov. Phil Murphy's latest restrictions on bars and restaurants in New Jersey have cut out that business.
It's not just about the food and drinks, said Bob Cooper, president of Chefs International, which owns Baker's Water Street Bar & Grille.
"People need a little bit of joy in life," Cooper said. "They’re not there for sustenance, they’re there for enjoyment, to blow off steam for a little bit."
"This is going to cost jobs," Cooper said. "He’s shutting everyone down because some can't follow the rules."
As of Thursday, food and drink service at the bar is no longer permitted, and indoor food and drink service has to stop as of 10 p.m. Restaurants are allowed to move tables closer than 6 fee from each other as long as there are barriers between them, to make up for the loss of the bar seating, but they are still limited to 25 percent of capacity indoors.
Murphy announced the limitations as coronavirus cases have soared across the state. There have been more than 14,000 new cases in New Jersey since Monday, and Ocean County has added nearly 1,000 cases in that time. Along with the new cases, hospitalizations have risen sharply. As of Friday, there were 1,909 New Jersey residents hospitalized with COVID-19, and 359 were in intensive care, the highest numbers since May.
Murphy on Monday said there had been outbreaks tied to bartender-patron interactions, and cited one bar in particular — Leggett's in Manasquan — as having a signficant outbreak. During the summer, Murphy and his staff regularly criticized bars that had dozens of people standing in line waiting to get in.
"We weren't having bands that attract big crowds of people," Cooper said. "We fed hundreds of thousands of people this summer and we had no outbreaks."
The shutdown and the limited indoor capacity had already taken a significant toll on Baker's Water Street, he said, and the new restrictions are making matters worse.
"I think restaurants have been treated unfairly since the beginning," Cooper said. "There's a 10 percent increase in unemployment in our sector. We lost our entire wedding season, our Christmas party bookings are nonexistent."
Even reservations for Thanksgiving, a popular time for families to eat out, are way off, he said.
"Not letting us sell drinks over the bar is just horrible," he said. "(Workers) can stand around in Shop Rite for 8 hours but I can't move around a bar and sell cocktails?"
The outdoor service isn't a panacea.
"We’ve always been oriented to the outdoors but it doesn’t make up for the time we were closed," Cooper said of the restaurant, which sits along the Toms River and has outdoor areas that are very popular during the summer. "We’re going to see dramatic dips in business now that the outdoor isn't as attractive." Chefs International is trying outdoor heating options, but it's an expensive propostion, and one that only goes so far.
Pagano said the outdoor seating is no help to the Office Lounge, which will mark its 45th anniversary on Dec. 12, because the area they used during the warmer weather is not workable in the cold. Wait staff would have to walk too far to serve patrons, meaning food would more than likely get cold, and they are not able to add heating.
Ending food and drink service indoors at 10 p.m. cuts off 10 to 15 percent of the business the restaurant normally does, he said.
Pagano expressed the same frustration that Cooper shared, that restaurants and bars following the rules were getting punished because of a handful of bad actors.
"I wish the governor would come out and make an example of us for doing what's right," he said.
Losing the bar service is a big issue, as the sprawling bar in the Office Lounge — with multiple televisions tuned primarily to sporting events — dominates one of the main areas, Pagano said. No matter what season, it was common to see big crowds cheering on their football or baseball, hockey or basketball teams.
"We space out the bar seats with tables between seats," Pagano said. "It's very frustrating" to lose that service. He said the restaurant has been helped by the community's response, including picking up takeout meals.
"We value our customers and our community," said Pagano, who has worked there for more than 30 years. "When bad things happen, people do a lot of good things."
"We're working on a plan" to adjust to the new restrictions, Pagano said. "We’ll keep trucking. It's about the people who work here, who are fighting and struggling to stay afloat."
Cooper of Chefs International said, "Why shut down a restaurant that’s just trying to make a living because you're afraid of someone who isn’t following the rules? We don't want anybody to get sick."
"We’re just looking month to month. We’re going to be open, we’re going to fight the fight. Our people gotta eat," Cooper said. "I have a lot of people who can't afford to miss paychecks and they can't afford to miss tips."
"I just worry about the people who are going to lose jobs," he said. "This whole thing is an overreach."
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