Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday said he expects to lift most pandemic restrictions by May 19 – allowing a 100% reopening of restaurants, gyms, theaters, stores and amusements parks.

Murphy also is lifting the ban on bar seating starting Friday, May 7, which will now be the new date when dance floors can reopen for private catered events.

The announcement at 1 p.m. was previewed Monday morning by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said his state would be doing the same in coordination with neighboring Connecticut and New Jersey.

While capacity limits are being eliminated, including the cap patrons will still have to wear masks indoors and establishments will have to follow the 6-foot social distancing rules, meaning that entertainment and dining venues still will not be operating exactly as they did before the pandemic.

Restrictions changing Friday, May 7:

  • Indoor bar seating allowed.
  • Buffets and self-serve stations allowed in restaurants.
  • Outdoor gathering limits will increase to 500 people (previously set for May 7).
  • Indoor room capacity at 50%, no more than 250 people.
  • Reopening dance floors for private events such as proms.
  • Increasing capacity large outdoor venues and stadiums up to 50%.

Restrictions changing Wednesday, May 19:

  • No limit on outdoor events except for 6-foot social distancing. "This means events we associate with summer, from fireworks to parades to state fairs, can all go forward as long as attendees are keeping 6 feet of distance," Murphy said.
  • No capacity limit at indoor establishments except for 6-foot social distancing.
  • No capacity limit for religious services, retail stores, casinos, gyms, personal care, indoor or outdoor amusement and recreation, and indoor and outdoor pools.
  • Indoor gathering limits for house parties will be doubled to 50.
  • No limits for catered affairs, religious services and performance so long as 6-foot social distancing is followed.
  • Gatherings overseen by commercial entities such as expos and conferences limited to 250 people.
  • Capacity at venues with at least 1,000 fixed seats limited to 30% with ticketed groups sitting 6 feet apart.

The development is the biggest move toward reopening in the 14 months that New Jersey has been struggling through the coronavirus pandemic.

"We can do this safely because our numbers have trending decisively in the right direction over the past three weeks. We have done exactly what we have said we would do all along: We have made this decision based on our public health metrics and not on politics," Murphy said Monday.

The state has at least partially vaccinated more than 7 million residents while the rate of transmission as dropped to .46, the best it's been in a year, and hospitalizations are at a manageable 1,500.

Murphy said that the reopening dates are contingent on the numbers continuing to trend positively, which he said will happen only if people continue to get vaccinated. To that end, he said the state is "now pulling out all the stops unlike any other American state to bring New Jersey along" through a campaign promoting vaccinations. The state's six megasite now have no-appointment walk-in hours for anyone 16 and older.

Murphy teased Monday's announcement on Sunday, a week after teasing another "major" announcement that many criticized as falling short. In that announcement, Murphy said that outdoor and indoor gatherings would be allowed to reach 50% capacity on May 10.

Murphy has faced increasing pressure from Republican lawmakers in the minority but also from business groups and fellow Democrats to quicken the pace of reopening following months of steady improvement in keeping the spread of the coronavirus under control.

And while most schools and returned to at least a hybrid in-class/remote format, some schools are still battling with teachers over returning fully to the classrooms. Murphy has supported reopening schools but has left that decision to local school leaders.

The New Jersey Business and Industry Association said it was "beyond time" for Murphy's announcement, although still "very welcome news."

“For our New Jersey businesses that have been able to hold on during closures and restrictions, we must do all we can to help them rebound quickly. We must get their workforce back, halt any additional mandates, and continue to assist with capital investments to address how they deliver their products and services into the future," NJBIA President and CEO Michele Siekerka said. "We must be mindful that, with the losses they have sustained and the inflationary costs they are realizing today, we cannot put any new mandates on them."

State Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Bergen, on Monday called on Murphy to reopen all government offices, including unemployment centers.

“It seems ridiculous that we have to pass a bill to force the Murphy administration to reopen offices to serve the public, but that’s where we’re at,” Corrado said. “The governor recently suggested they may be back to work in a few months. They should be back today.”

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