Gov. Phil Murphy said he’ll sign an order on Wednesday outlining how the state’s restaurants and bars can start outdoor dining on June 15, as the sprawling industry prepares for a partial reopening amid a slowdown in the COVID-19 pandemic.
These new guidelines from the New Jersey Department of Health will also touch upon how “non-essential” retail can reopen to customers, which will include a reduced 50-percent capacity, a face-coverings mandate, and adherence to social distancing.
Additionally, as many local towns and cities close off roads to automobiles and convert them to spaces for outdoor dining, the state’s Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control is scaling back rules to make it easier for those establishments to continue serving liquor.
Restaurants would be allowed to expand the size of the premises where they can serve alcohol under the proposed one-time permit, but they still must seek state and local approval.
“As part of our move into stage two, restaurants and bars will have to have tables that are seating individual groups 6 feet apart,” Murphy said Wednesday afternoon at his daily COVID-19 press briefing in Trenton.
“They’ll have to abide by a number of safety and sanitation protocols,” which will be released by the DOH within the next day, the governor added.
The limit to outdoor dining could lead to a surge in local governments employing creativity to get more patrons out on the streets and sidewalks, where they might be exposed to other local businesses that have stayed shuttered during the pandemic.
“We recognize that municipal officials closest to the ground are in the best position to make these decisions that are both equitable and practicable and safe,” Murphy said.
Towns such as Metuchen, Hoboken and Jersey City are already closing off certain streets to cars so that restaurants, especially those without the capacity to offer outdoor dining, can use them for shared spaces. Other options have included closing off specific parking spots to turn them into “parklets,” where a certain number of tables are placed, or closing off entire parking lots.
“We like the idea of trying to claim a little bit more real estate,” Murphy said. “These are for restaurants that don’t have right now the ability to have outdoor dining. Whether it’s a sidewalk, a parking lot, some other shared space between buildings, as long as it can be done safely and responsibly, we like that.”
In mid-March, the governor enacted a host of sweeping restrictions, putting the state in lockdown as businesses were closed, while public gatherings and many forms of travel were banned. But restrictions have been rolled back as the number of new hospitalizations, fatalities and positive cases trend down from their mid-April peak.
Phase one of the reopening plan mainly allowed for the resumption of outdoor activities, where social distancing could be more easily followed. Phase three calls for rolling back even more restrictions, and most activities to be allowed with safeguards in place.
All the while, testing has been ramped up across the board, and Murphy is expected to announce statewide contact tracing plans in the coming days to track and isolate potential new cases so as to prevent future COVID-19 outbreaks.