Indoor dining in NJ: These are the rules (and reactions)
Ready to rush out to a restaurant Friday, now that Gov. Phil Murphy is once again allowing limited indoor dining?
It won't be quite like you remember, pre-coronvirus pandemic. Murphy and state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli are planning a series of restrictions and precautions as patrons get ready to go back indoors for the first time since Murphy closed restaurants by executive order in March.
Murphy also pledged he'd do everything he could to avoid a repeat of late June, when he reversed course on a previously announced plan to let indoor dining resume on July 2 — less than a week before the date hit. Restaurant and industry groups blamed him not only for pulling back on his promise, but for doing it after their members incurred expenses to get ready for reopenings.
He said he had a "supremely high degree of confidence" the reopening would happen Friday, and said he only anticipated shutting restaurants down again if there was a "sustained increase of the (coronavirus) metrics" that could be specifically tied to indoor dining.
New Jersey has allowed outdoor dining since earlier this summer, including in covered areas with at least 50 percent open wall space.
"This pandemic has crushed the hospitality industry," the New Jersey Licensed Beverage Association said in a statement Monday. "Our hearts go out to so many establishments that unfortunately had to close their doors for good. Now it is time for the remaining survivors to get back to work. Together, we can safely make New Jersey strong again."
The New Jersey Business and Industry Association Monday, in a statement Monday morning, called the announcement "appreciated, but unfortunately long overdue." It said most restaurants could have safely reopened in July had Murphy not changed his plans at the last minute, and many might be forced to close after missing out on critical seasonal business.
The restrictions as described by Murphy and Persichilli in the governor's thrice-weekly coronavirus press conference Monday:
- Occupancy will be limited to 25 percent of normal capacity.
- Six feet of distance will be required between tables.
- Staffers will have to wear masks at all times.
- Diners will be required to wear masks when they're not seated.
- Food and drink can only be consumed by people who are seated. Walking around with a drink indoors "will not be tolerated," Murphy said.
- A table can have a maximum of eight people, except immediately family members. Couples can sit together.
- At a restaurant with table service, patrons will only be able to order food while seated — they won't be able to go to the bar for another order or drink.
- Restaurants that provide food service at bars can do so if everyone keeps six feet apart. The maximum for a single group at a bar is four people.
- Windows must be kept open. Air conditioning must be turned on to allow the maximum amount of air in and set to do the least recirculating of air possible.
- Ventilation systems must be inspected regularly and run for two hours both after and before patrons are present.
- Signage at restaurants must warn patrons not to enter if they have fevers or other symptoms.
- Restaurants will have to install signage and physical guides to encourage people to space apart while in line for seating or restrooms.
- Reservations will be encouraged.
- Patrons will have to wait in their cars to be seated if a restaurant can't provide enough space for social distancing in a waiting area.
- Buffets and self-service will be prohibited.
- Physical barriers must be installed at host areas or other places where close contact is difficult to avoid.
- Staffers must be screened for symptoms daily, and trained on best health safety practices.
- Restaurants must provide hand sanitizers for customers and disinfect high-touch areas regularly.
"We have been working hard for several months now to get to this point," Murphy said. "We committed that we would not put ourselves in a similar position again, and that we would not allow indoor dining to resume until we had confidence that we would move forward."
Still, the governor stopped short of guaranteeing plans couldn't change, and declined to provide specific benchmarks for the state's coronavirus spread that he needed to see before allowing indoor dining. Reporters have asked several times for such benchmarks, and the governor has declined to provide them each time.
In a message emailed to New Jersey 101.5 Monday, Rutgers associate professor and epidemiologist Henry F. Raymond urged people to take precautions when visiting restaurants, or the indoor gyms Murphy also recently announced could reopen. Movie theaters will also be allowed to reopen at limited capacity Friday.
“It is especially important that people do not go to public places, especially indoors, if they are feeling sick or have been in close contact with someone who is sick," he said.
State senator Anthony M. Bucco in a statement said that he's "glad governor Phil Murphy is finally allowing indoor dining to resume after a five-and-a-half month ban," but Murphy should consider whether and when restaurants can allow for greater than 25 percent capacity. State Senator Declan O’Scanlon and Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso called the capacity limit "overly restrictive."
“As the governor and his brain trust fiddled, the restaurant industry has burned," O’Scanlon said. "Finally, the governor has succumbed to the inescapable reality that every other state has already recognized – indoor dining can be done safely and will provide precious jobs, and a substantial, vital economic boost."
DiMaso said the 25 percent limit was useless "when social distancing and table spacing will be a natural cap." She also criticized Murphy for only giving restaurants a few days' notice.
The National Federation of Independent Business said it hopes to see Murphy expand the capacity cap soon.
“This has been a financial and emotional roller coaster for independent restaurant owners who were shuttered in March, then bought food in July when told they could reopen indoors, but that didn’t happen so they lost money and hope," NFIB State Director in New Jersey, Eileen Kean said in a statement. "Now months later, word comes from the governor on Twitter they can reopen inside before Labor Day weekend, which is good but at 25% capacity they still can’t make a profit.”
The New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association in recent weeks had urged Murphy to allow a reopening.
A message from restaurateur Vic Rallo shared by the NJRHA on Facebook this weekend, before the governor's announcement, said "if something doesn’t give soon, the next wave of mom and pop restaurants will close. At this point all we want is for what is fair, and a chance."
Atlantic City's nine casinos have also been chomping at the bit to resume indoor dining, saying the ban has seriously hurt their business.
One of the consequences of the indoor dining ban in the gambling halls is the prohibition of the traditional serving of beverages on the casino floor.
That would presumably be allowed to resume on Friday, although Murphy did not specifically mention casinos in his announcement. Still, the casinos are excited to be able to offer even limited indoor dining as the crucial Labor Day weekend approaches.
"We are very pleased to resume indoor dining this Friday allowing us to bring valued team members back to work," said Joe Lupo, president of the Hard Rock casino. "We have seen tremendous success with our outdoor dining venues, although weather variables have been a real challenge. Opening indoor dining brings back a key amenity that our guests know, love and deserve."
The announcement comes five months after the state shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. The outbreak in New Jersey has led to more nearly 192,000 positive cases and 14,165 fatalities.
On Tuesday, gyms and health clubs are cleared to reopen, also at 25% capacity and with a mask requirement.
The state had been in the second of three stages of reopening, but Murphy later on Monday said the restarts put the state in stage three territory. An official announcement is still pending.
(Includes material copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)