MICHELLE BRUNETTI POST Staff Writer
From the Atlantic City Press
WILDWOOD — Restaurateur Brendan Sciarra has been thinking a lot about how to reopen food and beverage businesses for the summer, in a way that protects public and economic health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For a region that makes much of its income from June through August, it’s important to have a plan to reopen as quickly and safely as possible, said Sciarra and other local leaders in Cape May and Atlantic counties.
Gov. Phil Murphy has said he plans to reopen the state as a whole, not region by region. The state recovery commission he named this week did not include any South Jersey shore leaders or business people.
But Sciarra said he hopes the task force he’s working on will change Murphy’s mind.
“It needs to be a regional approach with guidelines,” Sciarra said. “The calendar is not our friend. We need to be open by Memorial Day, or hopefully if not then, a week later.
Sciarra is working with the Cape May County Recovery Initiative, a freeholder-led group, and has recommended ideas for social distancing signage, spacing and staffing at reopened restaurants, he said.
Others are making recommendations for other business sectors.
The Cape group is working closely with a similar group in Atlantic County.
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson and Freeholder Chairman Frank Formica sent a letter Wednesday to all 23 mayors in the county asking for their specific needs in a reopening plan.
“New Jersey is not a one-size-fits-all state, and Atlantic County is not a one-size-fits-all county,” the letter said. “The Atlantic County region needs a targeted recovery effort that addresses the devastating size of our economic injury and is responsive to locally determined needs and priorities.”
Levinson cited two recent economic impact studies by the Stockton University South Jersey Economic Review and the Atlantic County Economic Alliance. They predict a decline in the regional economy ranging from 11.9% to 28.3%, depending on the length of the closing and the public’s readiness to return to tourism sites.
A recent report by the Brookings Institute projected the Atlantic City/Atlantic County region will be the third most severely impacted in the country due to COVID-19 closings. It said the Ocean City/Cape May County region will rank seventh-worst hit.
In Cape May County, the recovery initiative is co-chaired by Freeholder Vice Director Len Desiderio and Freeholder Will Morey.
“We are compiling a number of things we think are innovative ways of opening up Cape May County using social distancing, being smart and being safe,” Desiderio said. “We will pass it up to the governor and his staff (in the next 10 days).”
It is a bipartisan effort to get the county reopened as safely and quickly as possible, the two said. Sciarra is the Cape May County Democratic chairman, and the freeholder board is all Republican.
“We are looking at this as the community moving together,” said Desiderio. “There is not one person who has called that we have asked the party affiliation.”
“In fact, there’s been a lot of holding hands (between the parties),” Morey said. “This is a plenty big problem now, and it’s causing folks to work together who haven’t in a long time.”
The task force brings together members of the business community, mayors of the 16 municipalities in the county, health sector professionals, state and federal elected officials, and others, they said.
Both said innovation is the key to opening earlier, while protecting those who are most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.
“Some retail have been allowed to be open and it has worked,” Desiderio said. “Restaurants are doing takeout only. Some never had takeout before, now they have adapted.”
“We have all had the opportunity to learn,” Morey said. “Grocery stores have been open and essential businesses open, and we have been able to observe how they’ve adapted.”
The rest of the business community is ready to do the same, he said.
“People are smart. People will adapt,” Morey said.
Sciarra has already made changes in his establishments, which have remained open for takeout, that he plans to build on, he said.
“We amped up on online ordering and more technology,” he said of his approach to business at Poppi’s Brick Oven Pizza & Kitchen and Dogtooth Bar & Grill.
And his Mudhen Brewing Co. will begin offering curbside pickup Thursday, Sciarra said.
While he expects to thin out his indoor seating, outdoor seating may increase, he said.
“We are making sure people do feel comfortable coming out,” Sciarra said.
While seating fewer customers will be difficult on the bottom line, it’s doable, he said.
“It’s always hard if you don’t run them full throttle,” he said of restaurants, “but we will keep (more) takeout and think out of the box. Hopefully this isn’t the norm, but in a period of time we can get through it.”