More than five months after being ordered to close their doors, New Jersey restaurants will finally welcome customers back for indoor dining, just in time for Labor Day weekend.
Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday that he is signing executive orders that will grant restaurants, movie theaters and performance venues the ability to reopen their indoor facilities, effective at 6 a.m. Friday.
News of Murphy’s announcement was first reported Monday morning in New Jersey Playbook .
Months after the New York City and its suburbs sat at the epicenter of the global pandemic, New Jersey remains one of a handful of states that hasn’t given the go-ahead for restaurants to resume indoor dining and movie theaters to reopen. State officials have been hesitant to offer a clear sense of when New Jersey would take that step, particularly after Murphy scuttled earlier plans to resume indoor dining in late June.
Monday’s directives, which will come with accompanying guidance from the state Department of Health, represent a temporary salve for business leaders who’ve spent months decrying many of Murphy’s Covid-19 restrictions as out-of-date and unnecessary.
Roughly 16,000 residents are believed to have died from the virus and more than 191,000 have been infected since the state recorded its first known case of Covid-19 on March 4.
“This pandemic isn’t over yet and our goal is to ensure this step is done properly to prevent the kind of spikes we saw in other states that allowed their restaurants to reopen too fully, and too quickly,” Murphy said during his regular press briefing on Monday, later adding: “There is no room for error.”
Indoor capacity at restaurants will be capped at 25 percent. Tables must be at least six feet apart. Masks must be worn by staff at all times. Patrons must adhere to the same whenever they get up from their tables — there will be no mingling around the bar. Parties larger than eight people are verboten, for now (immediate families excluded). Buffets, salad bars and other self-serve stations are still prohibited.
As with gyms, which are scheduled to reopen on Tuesday, restaurants will have to take steps to assure their facilities are properly ventilated, with windows left open and air conditioning units positioned in a manner that maximizes airflow.
“This resumption of indoor dining will come with strong limits on capacities as well as other requirements which will be strictly enforced,” Murphy said.
Separately, theaters and performance venues will be allowed to host events at 25 percent capacity or with up to 150 people, whichever is less. Restrictions on indoor religious services and political gatherings are being raised to similar limits.
Even with the relaxation of indoor capacity restrictions, industry lobbyists and Republicans have begun to pile on the Democratic governor for offering guidance that, according to New Jersey Business and Industry President and CEO Michele Siekerka, might be “too little, too late” for many restaurant owners.
Early Monday afternoon, Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-Morris) issued a statement requesting that Murphy increase the capacity restriction from 25 percent. Sen. Declan O’Scanlon and Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (R-Monmouth) issued similar statements. (Murphy on Monday said he hoped to lift capacity restrictions at some point.)
“The fact is most restaurant owners were able to reopen their doors in a safe and responsible manner when they were originally permitted to do so with limited capacity on July 2,” Siekerka said in a statement. "New Jersey essentially saw more than eight weeks of prime summer season go by the wayside, while our restaurant patrons went across the river to dine in Pennsylvania and Delaware.”
Though New Jersey has yet to see a true second wave of the virus, the data presented by Murphy administration officials throughout the summer was not uniformly positive.
Even in late June, when the number of new cases in New Jersey fell to a fraction of the daily totals reported two months earlier, outbreaks had begun to surge across California, Florida and Texas, prompting leaders in those states to roll back their economic recoveries.
In an attempt to prevent new outbreaks in the northeast, Murphy joined with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Connecticut’s Ned Lamont to require 14-day quarantines for any traveler entering the tri-state area from a hotspot.
Health officials view restaurant and bar reopenings as a major reason why the pandemic spiraled out of control in parts of the U.S. during the summer. Even with the quarantine mandate and dining restrictions still in place, New Jersey showed signs of backsliding in mid-July .
Murphy pushed back the state’s timeline even further on Aug. 3 after outbreaks were linked to house parties and crowded indoor gatherings.
Administration officials widely anticipate a resurgence of the virus in the fall and winter as more residents congregate indoors. On Monday, after noting that roughly 1,000 residents have tested positive for the virus over the last three days, Murphy said he would be forced to once again restrict indoor dining if public health data takes a turn for the worse.
“Would we consider reversing this if it looked like it was blowing up in our face? Sadly, I have to say yes,” he said. “I certainly hope not to.”