Lawmakers fast-tracked a revised bill to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk that expands the ability of restaurants to provide outdoor dining during the COVID-19 pandemic, this time with the blessing of the governor’s office after he previously rejected the measure.
The proposed Senate Bill 3340 passed was approved unanimously in both the Assembly and state Senate on Jan. 11, having skipped the typically required committee hearings.
If signed, the bill would allow restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries and other food and alcohol establishments that have taken a hit during the pandemic to extend their footprint outdoors, and sell food and alcohol out of spaces such as patios, sidewalks, decks, yards and parking lots.
Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-36th District, the bill’s sponsor, said the bill will cut through much of the “unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy” for eateries to expand their outdoor footprint.
The latest version extends the outdoor dining permit to Nov. 30, 2022, rather than the version which Murphy vetoed, which grants the ability to restaurants indefinitely.
“That gives every small business… two full years of spring, summer and fall to recoup their losses” from the COVID-19 pandemic, Sarlo told NJBIZ.
“But it also gives them a chance to capitalize on their investments that they have made this past summer: tents, heating equipment, landscaping, site improvement, outdoor electrical lighting, all of those amenities they invested in.”
Many restaurants have operated at limited capacity for nearly a year, ever since sweeping restrictions were put in effect to slow the spread of COVID-19 across the state last March and were prohibited from offering sit-down dining of any kind between then and June 15.
Restaurants and bars were able to provide outdoor dining over the summer. But with the cold weather rendering most of those options useless, Murphy signed an order permitting indoor dining at a reduced capacity beginning Labor Day weekend. Restaurant owners say the restrictions have been devastating to their businesses.
Under this new version, businesses would need to apply with their local zoning office for a permit to expand their outdoor footprint. Municipal officials would have more leeway to reject applications than in the version of the bill which Murphy rejected.
Assembly Bill 4525, which Murphy vetoed, required a municipal zoning officer to approve an application within 15 days if it complied with the requirements of the bill.
That “would significantly limit a municipality’s review by requiring approval of all applications that contain the requisite information,” Murphy wrote in a Jan. 4 veto statement, and as a result, “municipalities would have almost no ability to reject an application based on public health or safety concerns.”
The Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control, under the new version, would have broader authority over the approval process for outdoor liquor sales, rather than local officials, as was outlined in the initial legislation.
Under A4525, Local governments could not restrict the hours of outdoor dining beyond what is set out in the bill, unless those restrictions were in place before March 1, 2020.
“This would have immediate consequences, as the City of Newark currently limits outdoor dining after 9 p.m.,” the governor wrote. “Signing this bill into law would immediately overturn these restrictions and disrupt Newark’s plan to combat COVID-19.”
The new version includes carve-outs for restrictions that Newark and Jersey City have put in place since March 1, Sarlo said.
Local governments could limit or prohibit outdoor dining between 10 p.m. and 11 a.m. between Sunday through Wednesday, and 12 a.m. through 11 a.m. between Thursday and Saturday.
Amid a second wave, Murphy signed an order banning indoor dining between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.