COVID-19: New Jersey Restaurant Staff Reacts to Changing Pandemic Restrictions

Luigi Viola, owner and manager of Luigi’s in East Hanover, New Jersey, has been in the restaurant business for over 30 years. Luigi’s is an Italian restaurant that has been in business since 1988.

“I can understand all of the shutdowns and everything,” Viola said. “I’m not trying to be heartless, but I think that, really, at this point, all these restrictions they’ve put, I think they’re hurting more than the actual virus itself.”

Viola’s thoughts follow New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s tweet on Nov. 9 warning New Jerseyans that the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic is at hand. 

As the state’s daily case counts continue to increase, the governor announced via Twitter on Nov. 30 that New Jersey will not be facing a lockdown as extensive as the one in March.  

However, restaurants and bars are starting to feel the squeeze. As of Nov. 12, restaurants have had to shut down dining between 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. and completely remove bar seating. Only businesses with outdoor seating can remain open and serve alcohol, according to state guidelines, and more restrictions on dining could be coming as case counts climb.

Viola is grateful his business is able to remain open but feels the restrictions are unfair.

“We’re so limited on the tables we’re allowed to use,” he said. “When you reduce it to 10 people in the restaurant, I mean, seriously, how can anybody even make enough to pay the electricity and gas?” 

East Hanover Mayor Joseph Pannullo has been in office since January of 2008 and has sympathy for the situation restaurants and food service employees are feeling right now. 

“They’re all trying really hard,” he said. “I always say that East Hanover has a big heart. They are trying to help businesses as best as they can. But again, when there’s a limit on something like how many people can be in a restaurant, it definitely hurts your bottom line.”

Manager Jose Leon has been working at Luigi’s for many years and tries to balance the needs of the business with the needs of customers. 

“I believe we are living in very hard times,” he said. “We are suffering because of this pandemic. I know everyone is scared, but we are doing our best to keep everyone safe.”

Pannullo recognizes a lot of people are ordering out, apprehensive about going into a restaurant, and are changing the times they’re going into the restaurant by going in earlier.

“It’s amazing they’re still staying open and sacrificing,” Pannullo said. “People who have a bar, that bar business is hurting because people like to sit at the bar and have a drink and talk to the bartender. That’s not happening.”

While not a bar, Luigi’s still experiences the trickle down effect of what happens when a global outbreak meets local legislation, and how that impacts business.

“We’ve seen a lot of change,” Leon said. “The people don’t come out, they are afraid. And, economically, I can say we are getting hurt very badly.”

Luigi’s follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines to ensure the safety of both employees and patrons. Though Viola is understanding of the precautions being taken, it is still difficult for the restaurant to succeed, especially during the holidays.

Seating every other table limits the number of patrons and overall revenue. Viola questions the effectiveness of COVID related governmental restrictions like this. 

“I think the damage they’re doing with these restrictions is way more than the actual virus itself,” Viola said.

As far as local assistance, Punnullo has waived certain fees associated with outdoor dining and made it easier for owners to put up tents, heating lamps and extra seating. Restaurants were allowed to put up tents and take away parking spaces to allow more room for outdoor seating.

“We still have to enforce safe social distancing in their restaurants, wearing masks,” he said. “Everyone should wear a mask no matter who you are. And 95% of the time I’ve seen them doing just that.”

Luigi’s is one of the 700,000 small businesses across the country who received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, and for that Viola is grateful. However, with no government relief in sight, he is concerned about how the current second wave will impact his business.

“Thank God for the government that chipped in and helped out,” Viola said. 

Without government help of some sort, Viola can only hope for the quick delivery of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

“But at the rate we’re going, there’s no business,” he said.

Editor’s note: Our special reporting on COVID-19 may focus on communities outside Philadelphia because many of our student journalists are now temporarily located outside of the city. Instead, our reporters will cover how the coronavirus is impacting their own communities from across the country and around the world. We will return to hyperlocal coverage of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as soon as possible.

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