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George Street closes for outdoor dining — local businesses weigh in on effects

George Street is partially closed until the fall, with limited traffic and more accessibility for pedestrians and local restaurants. – Photo by @nursemegg / Twitter

Earlier this month, the New Brunswick City Council enacted a resolution to temporarily close George Street between the Albany Street and Bayard Street intersections.

The closure, which started last week, will remain in effect until November 5, according to the City Council meeting agenda. During its bi-weekly meeting, the council stated that the closure will extend until the end of the Rutgers Football season.

New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill initially signed off on the street closure between June 2020 and November 2020 in response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic through provisions outlined in Executive Order 2020-02.

The order closed the street from 2 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays. In December 2020, Cahill signed Executive Order 2020-13, which expanded the closure to the whole week and permitted business operations from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 9 a.m. to noon Thursday through Saturday.

The City Council repeatedly extended the executive order until October 2022, according to TAP into New Brunswick.

"I think (during the initial street closure) the mayor realized closing the streets permanently is going to be a good thing for traffic and for the city and for the restaurants and small businesses, along with good for Rutgers," said Sam Iskander, the general manager of Harvest Moon Brewery and Cafe on George Street.

Iskander, along with several other restaurant owners and managers on George Street, teamed up to lobby for the street to be closed and for outdoor dining to return, citing better customer experience, job quality and business opportunities.

"Our customers were really upset when it reopened. 'Why now?' 'New Brunswick looks dirty again' ... On top of the double parking and the noise and the pollution. We like to have two big accordion windows opened up, but when you have the buses and the traffic, you get the fumes of the cars. It's not as appetizing, pleasing if you will. Nobody wants to eat and smell car fumes," he said.

Additionally, Iskander said that the first 24-hour street closure made the staff's jobs much easier, as they no longer had to bring dining furniture in and out of the building.

The street closure presents different issues for restaurants that do not use the outdoor dining space, like Chipotle.

"The street closure, in general, prevents some customers from accessing Chipotle, our Chipotle location, because they need to park somewhere else," said Leo Valentino, an employee of the Chipotle on George Street.

He said the George Street location loses these customers to the nearby North Brunswick location due to the lack of available parking. Valentino also said the outdoor dining option might attract more customers, especially since students have moved away for the summer.

Additionally, Valentino said he would not prefer outdoor seating since Chipotle already has two floors and would be uncomfortable serving customers in the summer heat. Though, outside of work, Valentino said he prefers the street to stay closed.

"Personally, (the street closure) makes it feel more communal and walkable. I like the idea of having a street that's closed off to traffic," he said.

David Parker, the general manager at George Street Ale House, said while he was not directly involved in lobbying efforts to close down the street, his business was directly affected by the changes.

"Between the different phases over the last three years, there was only outdoor, and then indoor and outdoor (dining). We just went by what the city told us what we can and can't do … the rules would change every two weeks," Parker said. "So it was never our real decision."

Parker said he had seen a rapid increase in customers since the beginning of outdoor dining and has seen a steady plateau as the business transitioned from solely take-out and outdoor seating to being fully reopened.

With the advent of outdoor dining and accompanying police patrolling in the area, Parker said he discovered a newfound sense of safety. He said it had relieved some tensions surrounding law enforcement and allowed people to converse with police in relaxed environments.

Parker said he believes the sentiment resonates with many customers who have embraced the initiative of increased police visibility.

"It's like I get to know them on a first-name basis, they know me on a first-name basis, they know my regulars and it humanizes everyone in that aspect," Parker said. "That's one of the cool things I think about closing down the street."

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