By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Mike and Erin Dellavalle struggled to remember the last time they were able to sit down inside a restaurant to enjoy a leisurely meal.
But as indoor dining returned Friday at New Jersey restaurants for the first time in six months, the married couple from Pennington, N.J., savored a lunch of lobster, crabs and corn on the cob at Mike’s Seafood & Dock Restaurant in Sea Isle City on the last day of their week-long summer vacation at the shore.
“It’s a privilege, definitely,” Erin Dellavalle said of the pleasure of being able to eat inside again.
After banning indoor dining in March to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Phil Murphy allowed restaurants to open their doors again Friday at 25 percent capacity and with other safety protocols in place.
Customers at Mike’s Seafood & Dock Restaurant were greeted with signs reminding them of social distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We are following all of the CDC guidelines,” said Mike Monichetti, owner of the landmark seafood restaurant on Park Road in Sea Isle’s historic Fish Alley neighborhood. “We’re informing our customers of all of the COVID regulations set forth by the governor and medical experts.”
Monichetti noted that tables are safely spaced apart at least six feet and that his employees are wearing face coverings. As another precaution, some of his tables have been moved outside in a parking lot that has been converted for outdoor dining for the summer crowds.
The semi-enclosed dock area at Mike’s Seafood offers the comfort of indoor seating while overlooking the scenic lagoon that runs along 42nd Place.
Celeste Larson, of Marlton, N.J., was joined by her parents, Greg and Leah Larson, who live in Texas, for lunch on the Mike’s Seafood dock.
Celeste Larson, who was eating flounder topped with crab meat, believes that the resumption of indoor dining is a huge step toward returning to a normal lifestyle.
“I think it’s a whole different experience,” she said. “It feels a lot more normal. It feels like we are getting back to the way things used to be.”
The governor originally announced that indoor dining could resume during the Fourth of July weekend, but pulled back after concluding that it was still too dangerous amid the pandemic.
Although the peak summer tourism season is approaching the end, restaurant operators will at least be able to offer indoor dining in time for the normally bustling Labor Day weekend at the Jersey Shore.
“Mike’s Seafood is looking forward to welcoming back all of our loyal and faithful customers to the Dock,” Monichetti said.
Bujar Daku, owner of the upscale Italian-style La Fontana Coast restaurant in Sea Isle, was also getting ready for the return of indoor dining Friday.
“Right now, we’re all praying for indoor and outside dining,” he said.
Up until now, New Jersey restaurants and eateries have been limited to outdoor dining, takeout orders, curbside pickup and deliveries.
At La Fontana, 25 tables line the sidewalk for outdoor dining along Landis Avenue. They are adorned with white linen tablecloths, a tempting invitation for customers to sit down to have lunch or dinner.
Daku said the tables have been carefully spaced apart to meet social distancing guidelines during the pandemic. Although customers are once again allowed to eat inside, he believes the vast majority of his business will continue to come from outdoor dining as long as the weather stays nice.
“When you have a beautiful holiday weekend like this one, almost everybody will want to dine outside,” he said.
He envisions slowly transitioning more toward indoor dining when the summer weather begins to fade.
Alluding to the struggles the restaurant industry has faced during the pandemic, Daku noted that indoor dining is another way for him to “at least pay the bills.”
La Fontana is located at the corner of 50th Street and Landis Avenue. Across the street, Daku also owns Fratelli’s Wood Fired Pizzeria, which resumed indoor dining Friday and also has tables set up out front for outdoor dining overlooking Landis Avenue.
In Sea Isle’s Townsends Inlet section, staff members at the Beachwood at the Dunes were hustling Friday afternoon to prepare for the return of indoor dining starting with the restaurant’s dinner crowd.
“We are busy getting ready to open for indoor dining. We still have a lot to do,” said Patrick Deely, the Beachwood’s general manager.
Like other restaurants in town, the Beachwood has been offering outdoor dining for the summer. “Beachwood on the Rocks,” an outdoor dining and live entertainment area, has transformed the parking lot across the street from the restaurant at 8600 Landis Avenue.
Beachwood has been using social media to respond to requests from customers whether it will have indoor dining and drinks.
“Hungry? Thirsty? We’re ready to serve ya some (food and drinks) now INSIDE or OUT (plus some spots at the bar),” Beachwood says on its Facebook page.