Indoor dining is back at 25% capacity but is it enough for restaurants to survive?

For months, customers supported Lakeside Diner’s decision to defy the governor’s order and allow customers inside.

“Most of my customers are very loyal,” said Brian Brandisi, owner of Lakeside Diner.

And Friday morning, those same people showed up to celebrate the return of legal indoor dining. The tables were full and food was flowing out of the kitchen. Jim Granato has been coming for breakfast since the beginning.

“I think he made the right call and he stood his ground and the thing was he had a lot of support,” Granato said.

Since we were here about a month ago, Brindisi has gotten a citation every day with fines worth thousands of dollars. He says it was worth it to open early.

“I wouldn’t be here right now, if I didn’t keep my doors open June 1. I had a choice June 1, either open my doors and do it safely and do it the best way I could or shut my doors permanently. I had no choice, I had no choice,” Brindisi said.

Lyneir Richardson of Rutgers Business School says we’re in a critical quarter for the future of many restaurants in New Jersey.

“The first three months, people were holding on to see what happened. The loans, the grant programs that have been available. City, state, local, federal grants that have been helping businesses survive,” Richardson said. “This is the period, these next three or four months are going to be really interesting to see what happens between now and the end of the year. How many businesses will be able to survive?

He fears businesses that were only marginally profitable or in need of new credit lines are at risk.

“If people are not going back into offices, if students are not returning back to university settings, and you’re not getting foot traffic and vibrancy as you had before, I do think we’re going to see small businesses close unfortunately,” he said.

Still, Richardson says the governor did the right thing to hold off on reopening and to limit indoor dining to 25% capacity. Restaurants were also told masks are required inside unless people are eating and drinking at a table.

“To push this to 50% or 100% and then have the additional infections and health impacts, that would cause a total shutdown again so I think this is logical. It’s prudent. It will business owners generate additional revenue and the hope is as many as possible will survive and return to profitability,” said Richardson.

“25%, thank God is something but it’s not enough,” Brindisi said. “You still have a 100% of your electricity bill, you still have 100% of your rent.”

“My opinion, it’s Labor Day weekend, summer is over, opening it at 25% capacity is like calling 911 after you’re dead,” Granato said.

The governor made the announcement on Aug. 31, tweeting it was “to ensure this step is done properly to prevent the kind of spikes we saw in other states.”

“They should have given us a little bit more notice. Because people have to hire, bring food in, all the prep and a couple days’ notice that’s almost impossible for these small businesses to do,” Brindisi said.

Brindisi says he’s been complying with all of the governor’s new indoor dining mandates for months and that was his point. He hopes to tell that side of the story when he goes to court next week.