BRICK, NJ — If you stop in at River Rock Restaurant and Lounge much before 10 p.m., it's usually pretty quiet.
"Our nightlife starts at 10 o’clock," said Maria Conrow, general manager of the restaurant that overlooks the Manasquan River near the Route 70 bridge to Brielle. People come to listen to music and relax with friends for a few hours, congregating around the bar in the middle of the restaurant.
It's a similar situation at Beacon 70, which overlooks a tributary of the Metedeconk River. On a weekend night the restaurant is busy, even with the limited capacity, and many of its patrons come later in the evening.
"I don't see the difference between serving before 10 or after," general manager Vincent Costa said. "The virus doesn’t have a curfew."
Both general managers say business is going to be hurt even more by the new restrictions issued by Gov. Phil Murphy on bars and restaurants.
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.
"(Customers) don’t like to sit at tables,"Costa said. "They like to sit at the bar."
Long lines outside and people ignoring social distancing inside weren't problems at Beacon 70 or at River Rock, however.
"We’re very strict on all that," Costa said. "We seat the bar as if it's a table. We have seats 6 feet apart, and you're not allowed to stand up with a drink and not allowed to walk around with a drink."
"We have security on the weekends just to enforce the restrictions," he said.
River Rock had additional security as well, Conrow said.
"In the beginning it was tough but now they (customers) understand," she said. "It was almost like a normal scene, but with social distancing."
River Rock has an advantage in that it has a generous outdoor seating area, thanks to beachfront on the river.
"Right now it's a little tough with the weather," Conrow said, but they have heaters for the tents set up outdoors.
The bartenders are waiting on patrons sitting at the high-top tables, she said, but customers haven't been happy about the set-up. "It's only been a day or two," she said, adding she hopes people will adjust eventually.
At Beacon 70, the restaurant site isn't conducive to setting up "igloos" — essentially plastic bubbles for a single group of patrons — or much else in the way of outdoor seating. The parking area includes active access for boaters docked at the adjacent marina, and surrounds the restaurant.
"We did move our tables around again," Costa said. "We're hoping that will help. It's definitely not ideal." The addition of plexiglass barriers is a solution with minimal benefits, he said.
"It's another cost we're not getting back," he said, adding that once the pandemic finally passes and people are able to resume more normal activities, "we'll be stuck with all this plexiglass and no way to use it."
Costa said he believes Murphy instituted the restrictions because Thanksgiving is around the corner, a time that is very busy for the bars and restaurants as college students come home and meet up with friends they haven't seen for a few months.
"Thanksgiving eve is our biggest night," he said. "I think it’s a little bit harsh."
He said Murphy's restrictions may have the opposite effect of what he intends, too, as people who would normally gather at a bar instead gather at someome's home — or go from the bars at 10 p.m. to someone's home. The governor has repeatedly urged people to avoid gatherings because of the risk of spreading the virus.
Costa said restaurants that aren't complying should be disciplined or shut down.
"They're not giving us enough credit," he said. "I think it should be on each individual restaurant and bar to police themselves."
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