By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

At Sal’s Gastronomia, an Italian eatery at 104 Walnut St., the idea of a single-occupancy bathroom that anyone regardless of gender can use is nothing new. It’s been the norm since Sal’s opened. 

Owner Vee Caruso said she hadn’t heard about the Montclair ordinance requiring businesses — including offices, retail stores and restaurants — to label their single-occupancy restrooms as all-gender by Dec. 19. But she doesn’t see an issue with it.

“A bathroom is a bathroom, nothing more. I don’t know why people can be against having a gender-neutral bathroom. It was never an issue before,” Caruso said. 

The ordinance was adopted at a June 23 council meeting, introduced by Councilman Peter Yacobellis. It was part of a package of measures to establish more LGBTQ-inclusive policies, with a particular eye on creating an environment inclusive to transgender, nonbinary and gender non-confirming individuals. It doesn’t apply to houses of worship. It includes a provision allowing for a waiver, but only if the township’s construction official is convinced the requirement would conflict with plumbing codes or state laws.

Yacobellis said he hasn’t heard anything negative from businesses. He said several businesses — such as Ruthie’s Bar-B-Q & Pizza on Chestnut Street, Café Moso on Orange Road, and Java Love with both Bellevue Avenue and Church Street locations —  have shown their support by texting or emailing him pictures of their signs. 

Some of them may have already had gender-neutral signs before the law, he said, “but they are just embracing this.” 

Jason Gleason, executive director of the Montclair Center Business Improvement District, also said he hasn’t heard any businesses opposing the new law.

“I haven’t heard of any businesses asking for an exemption. I think businesses are excited for the opportunity to showcase the fact that they are well in compliance with this notion before the ordinance was even introduced,” Gleason said. 

The ordinance was met with a split vote during the June 23 council meeting. Councilman David Cummings, Councilwoman Robin Schlager and Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock voted against it. 

At the time, Hurlock told Montclair Local he wasn’t eager to add another burden to businesses, and he said council members only had three days’ notice before a first reading of the ordinance, giving little time to get feedback from members of the business community. Cummings said at the time the idea of unisex bathrooms needed more public discource and a community education outreach effort. Schlager said she was worried about inconsistency — that the ordinance didn’t apply to multi-stall bathrooms, and that it exempted houses of worship.

“I just felt that it’s all or nothing,” Schlager said at the time. “Otherwise, it didn’t make sense to me.”

Emails to Schlager and Hurlock left in November haven’t been returned. Cummings returned a message to check on a deadline for this story, but hasn’t replied further since.

But Gleason said that when the Montclair Center BID was gathering information from some businesses in town when the ordinance was introduced in June, he wasn’t surprised to find out that a large majority of businesses already had single-occupancy bathrooms that were available to people of all genders.

“We didn’t run an actual survey on it. But I will say that all the businesses that we spoke to about the ordinance were already in compliance,” Gleason said. “I had a business talking to me about spending a large amount of time searching through Amazon for what sign they were going to put on their bathroom.” 

Gleason said the Montclair Center BID has been supportive of the ordinance since day one, and welcomes any initiative that can make Montclair a more supportive and inclusive place for everyone.

“These are things that are good for our community, I think, you know? Outwardly letting people know what kind of a community Montclair is, right?” Gleason said. “[It’s] a community that cares about the people that live within, that is inviting and inclusive, and takes care of itself and its people.” 

Yacobellis said he expects all businesses to comply with the new ordinance, but he also said he expects some businesses might take some time to do so. 

“You have to give a person the benefit of the doubt that they may not know that it's changed,” Yacobellis said. “It's our responsibility to make sure that we're educating the public.”

However, Yacobellis said that if a business is not complying with the law, it can be reported to the township’s Civil Rights Commission; the commission can be reached at civilrightscommission@montclairnjusa.org. He also recommends simply calling the township’s code enforcement office to report it; the office can be reached at 973-509-5703.

“Code enforcement would then go and they would inspect and take pictures. If they found that the business was not complying with the law, that business would be fined,” Yabobellis said.

He also said there will be a grace period once the law is in effect. And he said the township won’t be sending people out around town, specifically looking to make sure businesses have gender-neutral bathrooms.

Yacobellis said he wants businesses and the community to remember that the new law isn’t meant to penalize anyone, but to be more inclusive to transgender and non-binary communities.

“This is to make sure that when somebody who is non-binary goes to use the bathroom in Montclair, that they don’t have to have anxiety about which bathroom to go into they feel safe,” Yacobellis said. “And again, it’s only single-user restrooms, right? We’re just talking about one person in a bathroom at a thing. … Anyone who is not familiar with what a gender-neutral restroom is needs to not look any further than an airplane or their own house.”