NJ expands indoor dining, gyms, casinos, personal care amid COVID-variant surge

Daniel J. Munoz//March 19, 2021//

NJ expands indoor dining, gyms, casinos, personal care amid COVID-variant surge

Daniel J. Munoz//March 19, 2021//

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Businesses including restaurants, casinos, gyms, entertainment venues and personal care establishments can now expand their indoor capacity from 35% to 50% under an order that went into effect at 6 a.m. on March 19.

Private gatherings are limited to 25 people inside and 50 people outside, and barside seating is still prohibited.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s order was done in conjunction with New York, which increased indoor dining capacity to 75% and 50% for New York City.

The move is being cautiously celebrated by business owners – especially restaurants – still worried if they can stay afloat with only half the indoor capacity. Restaurants could finally offer indoor dining for the first time in months on Labor Day weekend 2020, when it was limited to 25% capacity. The governor increased the limit to 35% capacity just before the Super Bowl weekend this past February.

The latest order, announced last week by Murphy, comes at a precarious time with public health officials racing to vaccinate millions of people in the state while a highly contagious strain of the virus takes hold in New Jersey.

That variant, the B117 strain first detected in the United Kingdom, is being linked back to recent surges of the virus, with the expectation that B117 would become the nation’s dominant strain in March.

And so the spread of the variant and national vaccination efforts have effectively run parallel to each other.

“Just because we are able to take these steps to deliberately and responsibly reopen more of our economy and business community does not mean this pandemic is over. Not by a long shot,” Murphy said at a March 17 briefing.

“As we have in the past, we will not hesitate to shut down anyone crossing the line and putting the health and safety of their patrons and communities at risk.”

Nearly 3.3 million New Jerseyans have gotten the vaccine, of which 1.1 million are fully vaccinated. The goal is to have 4.7 million adults vaccinated by June, and Murphy assured as recently as March 17 that the state will see a “quantum increase” of vaccine availability around Easter, which is on April 4.

That’s thanks to the addition of hundreds of millions of Johnson & Johnson doses, which only require a single shot, unlike the Pfizer and Moderna injections which each require two.

But metrics showing the spread of the virus have surged in recent weeks, and as of March 18, the state logged 3,830 new positive COVID-19 cases and 31 fatalities. The latest seven-day average for COVID-19 cases is 3,324 as of March 18, which is up 11% from a week ago and 17% from a month ago, making it the highest seven-day average since Feb. 13 when the state began coasting down from a second-wave peak.

State data shows COVID-19 hospitalizations increased for the fifth day in a row, with 1,966 COVID-19 patients as of March 18 – still down from the mid-January high of over 3,700 COVID-19 patients.

“We’ve got to watch this like a hawk to make sure this does not break out and up from” that range, Murphy added this week.

The rate of transmission – how fast the virus spreads – continues to hover over 1, meaning that for every one person who gets the virus, they spread it to another individual.