New Jersey will allow indoor dining and movie theaters to reopen on Sept. 4 with extreme limitations, after Gov. Phil Murphy pulled the plug once on it just before the July 4 weekend.
Murphy is also rolling back restrictions on indoor gatherings for political or religious purposes – such as rallies, celebrations, services, memorial services and funerals – to 25 percent capacity or 150 people, whichever is less. It was previously capped at 100 people or 25 percent capacity.
Indoor dining will be allowed to resume at 25 percent capacity, just before the start of Labor Day weekend, which typically marks the end of the summer season. Face coverings will be required for staff, as well as for patrons when they are not at their seats, and are encouraged when customers are not eating or drinking.
Tables must be spaced 6-feet apart. Groups will be limited to eight people, except for immediate families. Buffets, salad bars and other self-serve options would be prohibited.
Windows must be kept open while air conditioner units must be turned on, both to ensure new air is constantly pumped in, and indoor, potentially contaminated air is quickly purged.
Indoor wedding venues and banquet halls would be allowed to offer food inside, but would be bound to the restrictions applying to indoor religious gatherings and indoor dining protocols.
“We are able to take all these steps today because of the hard work millions of you have done to keep pushing down our positivity rate and our rate of transmission, and all the other health metrics we follow, to where we are comfortable and confident in taking them,” Murphy said on Monday.
“We will be watching very closely, and we will not tolerate any owners or managers – or diners, for that matter – who try to work around the rules.”
To avoid the potential for crowding around bars, food and drinks can only be consumed while seated, save for groups that are physically distanced 6 feet apart. Those are capped at four people.
“Walking around with a drink indoors will not be tolerated,” Murphy said. “If you are seated at a table, you cannot go to the bar to get another drink or place an order for another dish. You must allow your server to place and deliver those orders for you.”
Theaters will be capped at 25 percent capacity or 150 patrons, whichever is lower. That applies to the individual screens, so a theater with four screens would each be bound to that limit. Concessions like popcorn, candy and soda could be sold at the theaters.
Face coverings must be worn “unless you’re pulling it down to put away a handful of popcorn,” Murphy said.
“[O]ur job now is to ensure that this reopening only leads to future announcements expanding the indoor capacity limits, and that we do not have to take a step backward,” Murphy said at a COVID-19 press briefing Monday afternoon.
Many of the metrics which Murphy said show how far the virus has spread are all heading in promising directions: a positivity rate among COVID-19 oscillating up and down over 2 percent, and a rate of transmission, or how quickly it spreads, consistently staying below 1.
Anything above 1 means the virus is spread. As of Aug. 27, the positivity rate was 1.41 percent while the rate of transmission was .90.
“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 – steps which required us to hit the pause button on our earlier to plan to allow indoor dining to resume,” the governor said.
Gyms, theaters and eateries were among the first businesses ordered to close as the virus began to spread across the state in early March. As the outbreaks ebbed, Murphy allowed outdoor dining to resume on June 15, with gyms set to open on Sept. 1 at 25 percent capacity and with face-covering requirements.
While some restaurants have been able to stay afloat through a combination of takeout, delivery and outdoor dining, the arrival of colder weather could eliminate the latter option.
Indoor service was initially set to resume on July 2, at 25 percent capacity with face coverings and sanitization requirements. But the governor pulled the plug on June 29, saying that indoor dining had contributed to surges of the virus then evident across the country.
The move was another blow to an industry that had already been staggered by pandemic-related restrictions.
“Many restaurant owners have not generated the revenue to pay for these start-up expenses over the past 15 weeks, and therefore, dug deep into their own personal pockets to restart their business,” the New Jersey Business Coalition said in a June 30 statement. The coalition is a group of chambers of commerce and trade groups, including the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association.
Murphy has said that he would like to avoid that scenario from playing back again, but on Monday would not promise that he wouldn’t once again shut down indoor dining.
But his administration would have to parse with any data on rebounds of the virus to make sure it could be traced back to indoor dining and not an “out-of-control party in someone’s basement.”
A bill sent to the governor’s desk last week would set up a $30 million fund – managed by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority – to compensate restaurant owners for the financial hit they took when he pulled the plans on restarting indoor dining.
He did not comment on the measure when asked about it on Monday.
“I know many restaurants have had a tough summer, and I thank the many owners and workers who understood the need for caution, and who have creatively found ways to offer outdoor dining to customers,” Murphy said Monday.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated at 1:31 EST on Aug. 31 to add theaters and further details of the indoor dining parameters. It was updated again at 2:21 p.m. to provide further clarity of the details.