Restaurants are reopening their doors for outdoor dining

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UNION COUNTY, NJ — The highly anticipated second stage of the state reopening happened Monday, June 15, and area restaurants were all ready to get back to work with a sense of normalcy, even though new safety measures have been put in place to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Now that restaurants are gearing up for outdoor dining services, many are wondering how they will fare during this transition.

Teresa Lavorato, who spoke on behalf of her father, Giovanni Lavorato, the owner of III Amici Ristorante in Linden, mentioned how difficult it was to keep the restaurant afloat during the outbreak.

“We closed down the restaurant on March 16 because of the COVID-19 crisis,” Teresa Lavorato said on June 15. “It’s been a nightmare. We’ve been doing some to-go orders, but it’s not our main thing as a restaurant.”

Although the new safety guidelines will take some getting used to, Lavorato is eager to get back to work to begin feeding Union County again.

“We’re dealing with it,” Lavoroto said of the new guidelines. “We have to deal with the new safety measures that are put in place. What I’m hopeful for is everyone’s understanding. I’m hoping everyone is patient with us.”

Lavorato explained some of the new safety measures III Amici Ristorante will adopt.

“Markers have been placed on the floor,” Lavorato said. “Everyone would have to exercise the 6-feet rule. We’ve been cleaner than usual. We just have to go with it. People have to be separate. We can’t do very large groups yet. We’re not allowed to do that as of yet, and no one can eat inside at the bar. It’s been rough.”

Another restaurant in Union County, Costa’s Restaurant & Pizzeria in Roselle Park, has faced a similar situation and is finding it difficult to bounce back, according to co-owner Nick Cristofaro.

“We closed down the restaurant on March 18 during the time where COVID-19 was really bad,” Cristofaro said on June 22. “When we closed on March 18, we stayed home for three weeks. My partner was working the pizzeria for takeout and delivery. My business decreased by 90 percent.

“Service was empty but then we started to do business because we got a federal loan for more business,” he continued. “We hired a few people to keep business going. I ended up working four months for free because I put other people on the payroll, and I wanted workers to get paid. I had problems paying rent for my business. It’s a huge issue. 2020 might not be too good for us. Hopefully in December everything will get back to normal.”

While going over restaurant safety measures, Cristofaro revealed he had the virus at one point.

“I hope they make some kind of cure for the corona,” Cristofaro said. “I had corona. So, I know it’s not easy. Both my wife and I had it. To prevent the spread within our restaurant, we will practice social distancing. We currently wear masks. People feel very uncomfortable to book parties. If we get lucky, we’ll see that in 2021.”

Glad to be back in business for outdoor dining, Cristofaro admitted that this was the worst experience he’s ever been through regarding his business.

“I’ve been in this business for 40 years; this has been the worst experience ever,” he said. “We had a fire 12 years ago, but with insurance, that helped the situation. This situation is worse than that. At 57 years old, I’ve never seen the business worse than this. This is our reality. For small businesses, this isn’t normal for us and we’re not getting any help as a small business. There’s a lot of talk but no action. It’s a tough time and I’m hoping there will be better days.”

While he can relate to the many hardships small businesses are facing, John Coyne, manager of Mario’s Tutto Bene, an Italian restaurant in Union, is ready to implement the new guidelines. He is confident in the restaurant’s comeback.

“We closed the restaurant Monday night of March 16,” Coyne said on June 22. “It’s been very difficult, and we had to face new challenges conducting business. Curbside and delivery remitted to taking orders and making deliveries. Some people didn’t come back, because it was difficult keeping people on. Some people found another line of work. Employees were afraid to work during the onset.”

Despite the difficult time, Coyne is optimistic moving forward.

“June 15 began our outdoor dining services,” Coyne said. “It’s been going as well as we can expect. The community has been very supportive. We’ve been seeing both old and new faces since we’ve opened for outdoor dining.”

With modified safety measures, Coyne introduced something new for customers.

“We follow all of the safety protocols,” Coyne said. “We sanitize every table and all chairs. We practice social distancing, and we wear masks and gloves. We do quite a lot. Since opening for outdoor services, we’ve been utilizing our parking lot for outdoor seating; 15 tables with canopies are there. Normal tables are out front on the patios. Now, we’re using scanners for digital menus, using smartphones to further limit contact. Customers are required to use their smartphone cameras to point it toward the scanner. The link will pop up in their phone which leads to the restaurant menu.”

Confident in the direction the restaurant is now taking, Coyne is optimistic but also aware that life will never be the same.

“I’m confident in our restaurant’s ability to open,” Coyne said. “Life is different now. I believe the team we have assembled here can handle the challenges successfully.”