Gov. Phil Murphy approved the creation of a $35 million grant to help keep bars, restaurants and other eateries afloat that have been pummeled by COVID-19 and in-person restrictions.
Between March and the first half of June last year, restaurants were open only for take-out and delivery, with sit-down dining – both in- and outdoor – closed the entire time.
Establishments were allowed to reopen for outdoor dining only beginning last June, and finally allowed to resume indoor dining at 25% capacity beginning Labor Day weekend last year. Indoor capacity expanded to 35% just before Super Bowl weekend, and then to 50% last month.
But with restaurants running at slim margins even at full capacity, many business owners say they’ve been hardly able to stay afloat.
And so government assistance, be it state aid or federal relief from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, has been seen as a vital lifeline to dining establishments.
“These are among the places that have been hardest hit by the pandemic,” Murphy said at the bill-signing ceremony on the afternoon April 8 outside of Bourré Cajun BBQ Cuisine in Atlantic City. “Margins for our restaurants, if they’re positive at all, remain razor-thin.”
This new bill opens up grants to restaurants with up to 50 employees. It’s the third bill Murphy approved in a broader set of $100 million in proposed COVID-relief grants the state Legislature sent to the governor’s desk on March 25. On April 8, Murphy approved $15 million of grants for arts and culture organizations and a $25 million pot of money for businesses with up to five employees.
Like those two programs, this $35 million tranche of funding is being overseen by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which over the past year has awarded an estimated $250 million of grants, low-interest loans and other forms of COVID-19 monetary relief to roughly 55,000 businesses.
All of that money would come out of the state’s share of federal assistance provided under the Trump-era COVID-19 relief package approved in 2020.
State lawmakers have been pushing for a greater say in how the state spends federal aid, especially the $6.4 billion that the state will get under President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, including more business grants amid the pandemic.
During an April 6 budget hearing, Senate Budget Chair Paul Sarlo, D-36th District, pressed New Jersey State Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio on whether “we have commitments from you that your administration will work with the Legislature” on how to spend the money, something which the administration said it very much favors.