Gov. Phil Murphy on Jan. 4 vetoed a bill that would have enabled restaurants to expand outdoor dining amid the COVID-19 pandemic, arguing that the legislation sidestepped many different health and safety rules already on the books.
The proposed Assembly Bill 4525 would have allowed restaurants, bars, breweries and other food establishments to extend their footprint outdoors, and sell food and alcohol out of spaces such as patios, sidewalks, decks, yards and parking lots.
“I commend the bill’s sponsors for their efforts to assist New Jersey’s businesses and farms in finding creative ways to continue to operate during the COVID-19 emergency,” Murphy said in his veto statement. “However, in seeking to deliver a degree of relief to these businesses, the bill circumvents existing licensing and regulatory processes critical to protecting the public’s health and safety.”
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. They were prohibited from offering sit-down dining of any kind between March 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 beginning Labor Day weekend. Restaurant owners say the restrictions have been devastating to their businesses.
Murphy took issue with a provision that would shift enforcement of outdoor dining liquor laws from the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control to the local governments. Currently, the two share that responsibility.
Under the bill, a municipal zoning officer would have 15 days to approve an application that complies 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, and as a result, “municipalities would have almost no ability to reject an application based on public health or safety concerns.”
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.”
Breweries, distilleries, wineries and cideries could get ABC permits to sell their products at seasonal farmer’s markets.
The ABC charges a $75 license fee and $10 renewal fee for outdoor liquor sales at farmer’s markets, and the bill would limit that to $25 for a daily permit, capped at $75 per season.
Farms would be able to host outdoor events and gatherings underneath outdoor tents and canopies, for the duration of the pandemic.
Murphy said that this provision “could be construed to circumvent” the state’s construction and fire safety codes.
But one sponsor, Sen. Nellie Pou, D-35th District, maintained that the bill would have kept businesses in check with rigorous local zoning and liquor license laws.
She called the bill “a responsible proposal to help restaurants,” and that it “would have simply allowed restaurants to extend service areas” in a way that “would be restrained, responsible and in the best interests of host communities.”
The New Jersey Business and Industry Association, in a Jan. 4 statement, said that the bill would have given “much-needed flexibility for certain businesses,” and that Murphy should have instead worked with lawmakers rather than veto the measure.
“Instead, with the rejection of this legislation, which was passed unanimously by the Senate and Assembly, operations like restaurants, bars and breweries lose opportunities to expand and innovate,” NJBIA Chief Executive Officer Michele Sierkerka said in a statement.
“It’s critical that businesses have these flexibilities for as long as it is needed to maintain their operations during this time.”