Not quite business as usual in Morristown, but a start


 

Before the pandemic, Chris and Linzy Antoniello of Morristown dined out three or four times a week.

“COVID has saved us quite a lot of money,” Chris said.

“And we’re looking forward to spending it,” added Linzy, as they settled in with their mini-dachsund, Gracie, for an early supper outside the Office Tavern Grill on Monday.

It was the first day of expanded outdoor dining and limited indoor shopping since Gov. Phil Murphy locked down the state on March 21, and the Antoniellos already had booked reservations for South + Pine and the Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen.

Elsewhere on South Street, restaurateurs with sidewalk space were gearing up for what they hope will be a boost for businesses that have been scraping by for months with takeout orders.

Pavesi owner Moeen Gabra said he’s lined up live music–live music!–to enhance sidewalk dining for his guests.

Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin. Click / hover on images for captions:

Krista and Scott Saypol of Denville were passing through town and spied plenty of tables outside Millie’s Old World Pizza & Meatballs.

“It’s nice to sit outside and be served,” said Scott, who works in the mortgage business. The couple just returned from a month in Hilton Head, S.C. “It’s like normal there. They’ve had outdoor and indoor dining for weeks,” Scott said.

A half block from Millie’s, the Morris Pizzeria was contemplating outdoor dining. The restaurant relocated in the midst of the pandemic, after three decades at the newly defunct Midtown Shopping Center (slated to become the M Station office redevelopment).

“We have to apply for the permits. We’re just getting settled here,” said owner Farhad Naematulla, who reopened at the corner of South and Madison streets a month ago.

Shut out of the federal Payroll Protection Plan, Naematulla has applied for the second round of pandemic relief offered by the state Economic Development Authority. Savings and takeout by loyal customers have enabled him to keep his 10-person staff intact so far. He’s banking on his product to be bulletproof, come what may.

“Everyone loves pizza,” Naematulla said.

The town has been exploring ways to help downtown restaurants and bars after state transportation officials shot down a request for partial closures of South Street. On Monday, the Morris County Freeholders offered use of a “pocket park” on Schuyler Place to The Grand CafeSushi Lounge, and Tito’s Burritos & Wings.

Retail shops, meanwhile, were greeting their first trickle of indoor customers in a very long time.  State health rules require everyone inside to wear masks and stay six feet apart. Stores may not exceed half capacity, although that did not appear to be a problem on Monday.

Alexandria Davis of Demarest said she had abundant room to shop for half-price dresses and bathing suits at the Century 21 department store.  “It’s really nice,” she said of the wide-open aisles.

Morristown resident Ali Schmitt, who works at the 23 South gift boutique, is eager to see New Jersey reopen completely.

“I feel very positive,” Schmitt said, noting that COVID-19 infections continue to decline in New Jersey. “They might spike here and there. But people have to live.”

Morristown High School sophomore Gabriella Argueta, who works part-time at La Campagna Ristorante, said she has redoubled her efforts to stay COVID-free because the pandemic has sidelined both of her parents and she is helping support her family.

On Monday she bought a sporty camouflage mask for her 5-year-old brother Heider at The Teaching Room,  where staff members Amanda Bowser and Emma Steere were thrilled to serve them.

Kids some in wearing masks, Bowser said, “but their eyes still light up when they see a toy. That’s fun.”

After adjusting her mask and sidling past a sanitizing station at the entrance to the Just Jersey gift shop,Tanya Pyne of Morristown acknowledged feeling excited “but a little leery” about venturing into the world again.

Still, she wanted something special for her husband’s birthday, so she took a chance.

Pyne was among a couple of dozen shoppers who made their way into Just Jersey on Monday, said co-owner Tina Bologna. The business has held together thanks to state and federal aid, and brisk online sales, according to her store partner, Paul Miller. Now, it’s a matter of figuring out the foot traffic.

“There’s so much uncertainty. We don’t know what to do about our hours,” Miller said.

For Pyne, who joked about three months of “hell” with three college kids stuck at home, shopping is one thing. But outdoor dining is out.

“We have health issues,” she said.

Owner Steve Maqsudi of Express Frames also takes a measured view of the new normal.

“You have to be optimistic” about business, he said. “As long as (COVID-19) doesn’t come back in the fall, it should be good.”

Maqsudi has lost family members to the virus, however. Like Pyne, he needs more time before breaking bread in public.

“My brother invited the whole family to a restaurant in Parsippany,” Maqsudi said. “I said we’re not ready yet. Better to be careful, than the other option.”

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