If the COVID metrics continue to improve, Gov. Phil Murphy said restaurants and other businesses will be allowed to operate at 100% capacity starting May 19.

During the coronavirus update on Monday, Murphy also announced effective this Friday, May 7, indoor bar seating, restaurant buffets and self-serve stations will also be allowed in restaurants.

However 6-foot social distancing rules will remain in effect and masks will still be required when customers are not actually eating or drinking.

Dana Lancellotti, the president of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said the steps being taken are positive and appreciated but “a restaurant cannot get to 100% capacity if they’re still doing 6 foot distancing. That is a key thing to keep in mind.”

She explained many restaurants are configured in such a way that they cannot add additional capacity unless tables are about 3 feet apart instead of 6, “so we are still going to be asking and advocating for a reduction in the distancing requirements inside the restaurants. The 3-foot distancing is absolutely necessary in order to up the amount of capacity to where they’re going to be able to make the money they need to make.”

During the COVID update, Murphy made it clear New Jersey will not change the 6-foot social distancing requirement until and unless the CDC updates its distancing guidelines.

Murphy did say restaurant tables can be closer together than 6 feet if there are partitions between the tables, but Lancellotti said that’s not feasible in many situations.

“It’s different if you have booths. You can put partitions between booths,” she said. “It’s a little difficult to put partitions between round tables.”

She said allowing indoor bar seating, even if it is socially distanced, is a positive step because “seating at a bar is extremely important in order to bring back a lot of revenue to these restaurants.’

Lancellotti described opening buffets and self-serve stations as “a wonderful thing” and she also said lifting the eight-person limit per table was great.

After the capacity increases were announced, New Jersey Business and Industry president and CEO Michele Siekerka said the small businesses can't sustain further restrictions.

“Today is a huge move in the right direction, but there remain many issues that need immediate attention in order to ensure a swift and sustainable recovery," she said.

Eileen Kean, the state director of the NFIB, a national group representing smaller businesses, said the new rules will allow businesses "the opportunity to capitalize on the shopping and spending that is so critical to our small business owners during Memorial Day weekend. We remain very optimistic that the summer of 2021 will ensure our small businesses recover from this crippling pandemic.”

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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