Lawmakers look to extend NJ outdoor dining rules at least to 2024
TRENTON – Of all the changes brought on by the pandemic, are there any you’d like to stick around?
Lawmakers believe they’ve settled on at least one – the pivot to outdoor dining.
Two years ago, when doors of many businesses were ordered closed amid the early unknowns of the coronavirus, New Jersey changed other rules to encourage restaurants to use tents and other outdoor options.
The current law expires in eight months – but a bill sponsored by Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, and endorsed by a Senate committee would extend that another two years, through Nov. 30, 2024.
“Clearly, we’re still in that stretch where some of these restaurants are still trying to make up some of their lost revenue,” Sarlo said. “And people still want to be outside, and that’s the most important thing. People want to be outside. Let them be outside.”
Outdoor dining tents at restaurants aren’t as widespread as they were early in the pandemic but have not disappeared entirely as the state enters its third year since the emergence of the virus. Restaurants say it worked out well, Sarlo said.
“The sky did not fall. Nobody got hurt. Everybody handled this in a very great manner,” he said. “And people enjoyed being outside.”
Two years ago, restaurants were forced by Gov. Phil Murphy to close their doors except for takeout service. They were encouraged to provide outdoor dining, which continued to be an option even after their dining rooms could reopen, at first with capacity limits.
Under the bill, dining tents couldn’t stay up from Dec. 1 to March 2 unless a municipality’s building subcode official approves it. The rest of the year, it falls under the purview of a fire subcode official.
“Yes, it has increased the footprint of some restaurants. We understand that. And I agree this will probably be the last extension,” said Sarlo, who said the Legislature could consider other ways of providing approvals and perhaps revenues for towns to take the change beyond 2024.
Sen. Mike Testa, R-Cumberland, said that to avoid having to clean things up with another bill later, a two-year extension isn’t enough.
“I think we should look to the future and make this permanent,” Testa said.
Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, concurred.
“This is great, we’re extending it,” Ruiz said. “But I think we should work on a formalized way to have permanent opportunities for people who want to pursue having outside structures.”