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Do small restaurants need their own COVID-19 guidelines?

North Bergen's Cafe Per Tutti thinks so

The empty dining room at Cafe Per Tutti

With New Jersey stuck in Phase 2 of reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic, small businesses, especially local restaurants, have been struggling to stay afloat.

One North Bergen family restaurant is on life support. Catherine Licata is the co-owner of Café Per Tutti, a family restaurant where her son is co-owner and the esteemed chef Michael Licata.

Catherine Licata said regulations are too broad. Large restaurants with room for outdoor dining have been thriving. Smaller restaurants like Café Per Tutti don’t have the outdoor capacity.

The cozy dining room of Café Per Tutti has been reduced to just eight seats with outdoor dining.

Gov. Murphy has been reopening New Jersey in segments such as schools, parks, and restaurants. Licata said Murphy should segment even further with separate regulations for small and large restaurants.

Lack of enforcement

Licata said that some of the larger restaurants and chains on River Road, and Palisade Ave. in North Bergen are not abiding by the guidelines for outdoor dining. Some are packed with mask-less diners not observing social distancing, according to Licata.

“You can’t even park or drive through,” she said, the “swarms of people.”

Licata proposed a community watch program but feels that the issue is not necessarily with the township, but with the governor’s guidelines.

Changing by the day

Licata said the constantly changing guidelines are an “eternal, nonstop roller coaster ride.”

Licata took heart when Murphy announced that indoor dining could reopen in July. She began planning only to have Murphy rescinded the reopening, citing the lack of social distancing and mask-wearing.

“What happens when it rains?,” Licata said. “You just have to close the door.”

Tropical Storm Isaias knocked out the restaurant’s power, and a tree came crashing through the glass roof.

Licata has been left wondering what the plan for dining is during winter, especially when a second wave of COVID-19 is likely to hit.

Not just a business

Café Per Tutti is not just a restaurant, it’s Licata’s livelihood. “I don’t have pension or salary,” she said. “This is it.”

Licata has been using her life savings, but that is drying up. “My thought was that I was going to build something for the community, for my family,” an emotional Licata said.

While there is relief funding for small businesses, Licata said it isn’t enough to survive.

Licata said that Café Per Tutti received $20,000 from PPE funding, but it didn’t help the restaurant stay afloat.

She acknowledged the restaurant could get up to $20,000 under the Hudson County Small Business Grant program. But if rent is $4,000, and payroll is $12,000, she wonders how long that money is going to last.

Calls to communicate

Licata is part of the Restaurant Coalition, which has urged her to reach out to contact Rep. Albio Sires. She was mailed a form letter stating that there is an ongoing fight for more COVID-19 funding.

“Talk to us,” Licata said, pleading for increased communication.

Frequent COVID-19 testing of her staff and herself is a priority, but people can’t afford healthcare without a job. If Café Per Tutti shuts down, Licata is unsure how she would afford healthcare.

Licata believes she is speaking for small businesses across the county and hopes her story encourages customers to dine with and help small businesses that are struggling.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.