Just when Gov. Phil Murphy will further roll back restrictions on indoor dining remains up in the air thanks to a sluggish vaccine effort and unknowns with the presence of new COVID-19 variants.
But once the time comes, the governor suggested on Feb. 24 the next step would be to increase indoor capacity from 35% to 50%.
Whether Murphy moves the state in that direction would, for now, depend on where metrics such as hospitalizations and daily cases trend, he said.
“I don’t know when, but if the numbers keep getting better, it will be sooner than later,” he said during a COVID-19 press briefing in Trenton on Feb. 24. “But for the variants, it would be even sooner and even more significant.”
Murphy relaxed restrictions on indoor dining just before Super Bowl weekend, when he loosened capacity from 25% to 35%. He denied that the timing of his decision had any relation to the Super Bowl, which, in a non-pandemic year, would see people crowd into bars and restaurants.
Still, many public health experts that NJBIZ interviewed worried that early February was an inappropriate time to be rolling back restrictions on indoor dining, given the unknowns with the variants and the problems with vaccine efforts.
New Jersey health officials have reported 55 cases of the B.1.1.7 COVID-19 strain first reported in the United Kingdom, which is more easily spread than the strain public health officials have been grappling with to date.
The governor ordered sweeping business closures last March which barred sit-down dining and closed down malls, sports arenas, casinos, theaters, gyms, salons, and non-essential retail. They’ve been allowed to reopen at reduced capacity and intense sanitization requirements.
Murphy initially allowed indoor dining to resume at the start of September, and unlike other states during the second wave, he did not clamp down on those restrictions.
Indoor dining was slated to resume just before the July 4 weekend, but amid a surge in COVID-19 outbreaks across the nation, he pulled the plug on those plans.
“[T]he last thing I want to do… is to lurch open and then have to pull back, which is hell to pay on the businesses, on the customers, and everybody associated with it,” he said on Feb. 24.
Key metrics like hospitalizations, daily cases, the positivity rate, and the rate of transmission have all fallen from their second wave winter peak in mid-January.
The seven-day average was 2,465 cases as of Feb. 25, which is down 12% from a week ago. There were 2,045 COVID-19 hospitalizations, which was down 47% from a second wave peak on Dec. 22, and an all-time high in the spring of more than 8,000 patients.
On Feb. 24 the state logged an additional 2,661 cases, compared to an all-time record-high of close to 7,000 daily cases reported on Jan. 13.e