BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
As restaurants, bars, and non-essential retail prepared to open for outdoor dining and retail sales this past Monday, towns across New Jersey got creative, preparing to close down sections of downtowns, allowing restaurants to expand onto the sidewalks and into the streets, and offering free parking.
In Montclair, with no plans in place prior to the reopening, business owners who have been closed for three months begged town officials to take some action to help them. For those willing to risk reopening, it will come with increased costs and fewer customers served.
On Tuesday, the day after the businesses opened, the town responded to the owners pleas by waiving sidewalk cafe dining permit fees, offering $150,000 in grant funds, and working to close some streets during certain hours.
Towns such as Ridgewood, Metuchen, Red Bank, Princeton, Rutherford, and Maplewood began weeks ago drafting ordinances to allow for street closures, sidewalk expansions to accommodate diners, shoppers and pedestrians, and the waiving of permit fees.
On June 9, business owners and the Montclair Center Business Improvement District called into the virtual Township Council meeting disheartened that Montclair had not yet addressed any of the issues BID presented a month ago, which include parking, expanded outdoor dining, and the outdoor dining permit process.
“The only action by this town council is giving free parking [during the peak of the pandemic], then taking it back last week even though the businesses are not fully back. This council has been so tone-deaf,” said Phil Cantor, owner of Cantor Photography and vice president of the BID, at that June 9 meeting.
According to BID Executive Director Jason Gleason, after BID leaders created a townwide committee, Montclair Commercial Districts United, and met with hundreds of businesses over the last two months, they presented 19 requests, later reduced to eight after meeting with the town’s financial committee a month ago.
“We have lost a lot of businesses already,” Gleason told Montclair Local. “The owners have lost a lot, and those who can are trying to reopen within these limitations. Most will be at 25 percent capacity keeping tables apart and outdoors. They need more room. They need less fees and red tape. And even with these concessions, we will all be having to do our anti-rain dance. Even one rainy day will seriously impact the health of these businesses.”
The eight demands Gleason again presented to the council on June 9, less than a week before the reopening, were as follows:
1. Allow free parking in all Montclair decks from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. for six months or until peak-time demand approaches capacity;
2. Offer free first 15 minutes at all meters to ease curbside pickup;
3. Facilitate scheduled street closures to improve pedestrian flow on streets such as Church Street, Glenridge Avenue, Midland Avenue, and Bloomfield Avenue;
4. Allow all businesses to utilize their sidewalks as soon as possible, extend sidewalk space usage for businesses needing to contend with reduced capacities, and streamline and/or eliminate the sidewalk permit process and fees;
5. Work with Essex County to temporarily implement a “Road Diet” on Bloomfield Avenue;
6. Rescind the Special Parking Zone parking fine increases;
7. Streamline and prioritize commercial permitting and inspections; and
8. Create an ordinance to regulate surcharges from third-party food delivery services.
THE COST OF REOPENING
For Franco Porporino, owner for more than 12 years of Fresco Da Franco on Church Street, the new normal means thousands of dollars to keep both customers and staff safe. Tables will be six feet apart, table toppers of white paper will be changed after every meal, and every table will have hand sanitizer on it.
Menus will be barcode-scannable so that diners can order from the table. All servers will be scanned with a laser thermometer before checking in and asked a series of questions, including if they have been out of state. If they answer even one yes, they can’t work. A full-time bathroom attendant will sanitize after each use. Along with constant cleaning, a once-a-week Electrostatic fumigation will be conducted. They also will be refusing service to customers who do not comply with Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
Like many shop and restaurant owners, Mike Guerriero of Gelati by Mike has been frustrated by the township’s actions or lack thereof.
“There’s been very limited, if any, correspondence from the township,” said Guerriero, comparing Montclair to his experience in Caldwell, where he has another shop.
“You know, they were very quick to work with us and reach out to us,” he said. They are allowing for extended outdoor seating and fast-tracking permit applications.
“We’re not under threat of closing down, but at the same time, you know, we pray for our neighbors because the less neighbors you have, the less reasons to be able to come to town.”
Montclair suspended all parking-meter and permit-parking enforcement on March 16, before resuming June 1.
Permit holders received a 100-percent discount for April and May, and 75 percent for June. They will get a 50-percent discount for July.
Free 15-minute parking for pickups will continue.
Mayor Robert Jackson said that the town has seen a loss of non-tax revenue, with parking revenue being a large part of that. The town takes in $1.3 million per year from parking meters and permit fees.
From March through May 2019, the town brought in $363,668 in parking revenue, reaching a high of $125,799 that May. Montclair took in $121,171 in parking fees in June 2019, and $117,527 in July of that year, according to records supplied by the town.
“That is not an answer we expect,” said Jose Barrero, a member of BID, in response to the mayor’s comment on loss of parking revenue during the statewide shutdown. “All the businesses in this town have put their big-boy pants on, donated food, and have paid their employees’ salaries. It’s time for the town council to do the same.”
According to the tax office, 93 percent of all commercial properties as of June 8 were up to date on their taxes. The town had billed $5,532,101 and received $5,130,647 as of June 8.
THE NEED TO SPREAD OUT
For eateries, the state has now issued guidance including a requirement that tables be located six feet from each other, with each table limited to eight customers. Montclair requires a six-foot sidewalk clearance for pedestrian use.
The owners of several businesses in a variety of locations around town, including Cafe Moso in the South End, Montclair Brewery on Walnut Street, and Fresco Da Franco on Church Street, said they would be unable to break even without the ability to attract a higher volume of customers by expanding their outdoor spaces onto sidewalks and into streets.
An additional difficulty would be having employees unhappy with coming back to work with a reduced volume of customers, resulting in reduced tips, they said.
Jaji Packard, a downtown landlord and assistant secretary/treasure of BID, said she has already lost two tenants to the pandemic, while other tenants, even though they will now be able to open, are concerned with serving enough customers to meet their bills. She suggested the council allow expansion into the parking lanes.
“If we can expand, more might stay in business,” Packard said. “Pedestrians will have a richer experience. They will spend more time and money in Montclair. Right now we need more customers than parking spaces.”
BID and restaurant owners have proposed road closures during evening hours on weekends to increase the number of customers who can be served.
But Mayor-elect Sean Spiller said that the town needs to look at the logistics of street closures and the impacts on both businesses and the residents who live on the streets that have been suggested for closure. He is also concerned with police costs to conduct the closures.
“Who picks up these costs?” Spiller said.
He had said prior to the May municipal election that he wanted to create a COVID-19 task force to aid the township in rebounding from the pandemic.
Last year, 71 Montclair eateries were licensed to operate as “sidewalk cafes,” which allowed for the use of outdoor dining space in front of their buildings. The township requires that all sidewalk cafés be licensed prior to operation. Retail stores placing goods outside for sale are not required to obtain a permit.
For 2020, Montclair has allowed the expansion of a sidewalk cafe to neighboring storefronts. But expansion is limited to adjacent storefronts only, with written permission from the respective property and business owners.
Gleason, the BID executive director, said that the township health department is doing its best to quickly issue permits, but with businesses already hurting from the economic downturn, BID wants fee waivers.
As of Tuesday, the town will now waive the fee or refund it for any business that had already paid. The one-time permit fee ranges from $150 to more than $1,000.
Due to the time-sensitive nature of outdoor dining currently, applicants are being notified by phone or email.
The one-time permit fee for seating 12 patrons or fewer is $150; that fee jumps to $250 for more than 12 patrons. For sidewalk cafes that extend a distance greater than four feet from the principal façade and have more than three tables with six seats, an additional sidewalk use fee of $1.25 per square foot of outdoor dining area will be assessed.
“Given the short notice of Executive Order 150, which set forth rules for outdoor dining, the Montclair Health Department is working with applicants to ensure the application process does not interfere with an establishment’s plans for allowing outdoor dining on June 15, while still providing the oversight required to ensure the public’s safety,” township communications director Katya Wowk said last Friday.
As of Friday afternoon, June 12, the health department had processed 21 licenses. Another 26 were pending approval due to missing documentation, according to department officials.
Zina Floyd, owner of Cafe Moso, pushed for the permit process waiver until restaurants can begin serving indoors. In years past, the permit was an option for restaurants that wished to expand their indoor service outdoors. But because of the pandemic, to do any business at all they are forced outside, which requires a permit, Floyd said.
Porporino predicts Montclairians will see many businesses close over the next 90 days.
“The [federal payroll protection program] is running out in July. We have been losing revenue every day we were closed, and if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, like you get two or three rainy days or a couple of 100-degree days, we will lose more,” Porporino said. “And then on top of it, there’s no relief from the town. It’s the perfect storm.”
Beyond the lost revenue, he added, businesses are taking on thousands of dollars in costs for increased sanitization, special menus, personal protection, employee health screenings, and table-toppers.
“It’s an emergency,” said Cantor. “We should have free permits, easy street closures, free parking for our customers. The businesses need help from the town council, not as a way to get permit fees and parking fees, as a way to keep taxes low.”
Andrew Garda contributed to this report.