Gov. Phil Murphy vetoed a proposed bill that would set aside $30 million to soften the blow the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the state’s restaurant industry, noting that he already set aside a $35 million pot of grant money last week for that exact same purpose.
And, he’s walked back statements from last week suggesting he might further loosen restrictions on indoor dining capacity, as the state sees rebounds of the COVID-19 virus, and daily cases and hospitalizations reach levels not seen in months.
During a Monday evening appearance of “Ask Governor Murphy” on News12 New Jersey, the governor was asked if he’d make an announcement this week on expanding capacity.
“My guess is no, at this point, and I don’t say that with any amount of joy,” he said. “Folks have got to pay attention to the positive cases and hospitalizations. We’re not out of the woods. We’ve got to do it at the right time. We’ve got to do it responsibly.”
Last week, Murphy hinted about potentially expanding indoor dining, but said on Monday that he was “concerned that we sent mixed messages, which we cannot afford to do right now.”
The proposed Senate Bill 2704 Murphy rejected earlier in the day called for $30 million in federal COVID-19 relief dollars to go toward the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which would dole the money out as grants or low-interest loans for struggling businesses.
Lawmakers in both the Assembly and Senate approved the bill in August with overwhelming majorities, and the measures had dozens of Democratic and Republican sponsors spanning both houses.
“I applaud the sponsors of [S2704] for their proactive efforts to assist New Jersey businesses during this critical time,” Murphy said in his Monday afternoon veto statement. “However, following the recent announcement that an additional $100 million in CARES Act funding will be available to support New Jersey residents and businesses, including $35 million dedicated to food establishments, the goals of this bill have already been achieved.”
As part of that Oct. 13 announcement, the NJEDA is handling $70 million for small business grants, and applications are scheduled to go live later in October. That announcement last week was hailed by legislative leadership, who were present at that event, including Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District.
Roughly 14,000 businesses applied for previous rounds of NJEDA grants from a $45 million pool of money an hour after applications opened in July. The agency highlighted that since March, more than 20,000 businesses were awarded a combined $74 million in grants, low-interest loans, and loan guarantees meant to offer a financial cushion for investors putting money into struggling startups.
Indoor dining was set to resume on July 2, but Murphy abruptly reversed course on those plans just days before, forcing restaurants to eat up losses and costs on preparations.
“We all know how difficult it has been for the restaurant business, and some owners said that they were out thousands of dollars due to the change,” Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick, R-21st District, said in a Monday statement.
While outdoor dining was largely popular during the summer, restaurant owners worry how they can fare as increasingly-present cold weather renders those arrangements useless.
Many New Jerseyans have opted to move indoors to unregulated activities such as social gatherings at private residences, where 6-foot physical distancing is not followed and face coverings are not worn. Those activities have triggered surges and outbreaks across the state in recent weeks.
The governor said that none of these outbreaks were tied to indoor dining, which along with indoor theaters resumed operations after Labor Day weekend, shortly after gyms reopened.
“I’m even more sobered today than I was on Thursday or at any point last week,” the governor said at a Monday afternoon press briefing. “I don’t want to take a step and then have to lurch backward.”