A South Jersey restaurant could lose its liquor license over what New Jersey officials are calling a "raucous Fourth of July party" and other violations of Gov. Phil Murphy's executive orders limiting gatherings in the novel coronavirus pandemic.

A temporary suspension of Burlington City restaurant Il Portico's liquor license ended Friday — but it could suffer a longer suspension or see the license revoked entirely after full hearings, the state said. It's the first time since the pandemic began a New Jersey restaurant's license was suspended for executive order violations.

Murphy allowed restaurants to hold indoor dining Friday for the first time since the pandemic hit New Jersey March — though at limited capacity and only if following several safety protocols. He warned last week that restaurants flouting his rules could see strict enforcement actions.

Il Portico said on Facebook it would be open for indoor dining, outdoor dining and takeout this weekend. It made no mention of serving alcohol.

"The restrictions we’ve put in place are there to save lives," Murphy said this weekend on Facebook. "Grateful to the Division of (Alcoholic Beverage Control) for their work."

According to a joint announcement from the ABC and the state Attorney General's Office, a "quarantine release party" featuring live music at Il Portico on July 3 (and extending into the early morning hours of July 4) "inside and outside the establishment" drew an estimated 500 people.

At the time, New Jersey allowed no more than 100 people for an indoor gathering — or 25 percent of normal room capacity, whichever was smaller. The restriction has since been tightened to 25 people, though the state allows up to 150 people for certain activities, such as weddings, religious celebrations and political demonstrations.

The state said Il Portico Ristorante blew well past its own pandemic-era indoor capacity limit of 49 people.

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"Multiple law enforcement agencies were needed to ensure that the large crowd safely left the premises," the state agencies said in their statement this weekend. They said the restaurant violated rules including several executive order restrictions: serving patrons inside the premises, allowing the consumption of alcohol in outdoor areas beyond the scope of the restaurant’s COVID-19 Expansion Permit, permitting patrons on premises without masks, and allowing patrons to be served outside of normal business hours.

“The actions announced today puts licensees on notice that they will be held accountable if they violate the safety measures in place to protect the public from the unnecessary risk of COVID-19 spread,”  Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said in the statement. "We will not allow our state’s reopening efforts to be compromised by bar and restaurant owners who conduct themselves with disregard for the laws and regulations of this state.”

Acting ABC Director James Graziano said the restaurant's party "failed to meet even the minimum standards of reasonable and responsible operation required of an alcoholic beverage licensee."

The state is seeking a 145-day license suspension of Il Portico's liquor license for the July incident. In a departmental hearing on Aug. 21, Graziano ordered an immediate two-week suspension of the liquor license and the restaurant's COVID-19 Expansion of Premises Permit, which had allowed the restaurant to serve alcohol on an outside deck adjacent to its licensed premises.

The temporary suspensions ran from Aug. 22 through this past Friday. The restaurant remains entitled to a full hearing on the charges against it before a lengthier suspension would be considered.

The state says that when investigators followed up with another visit on Aug. 14, they found Il Portico allowed patrons to consume alcoholic beverages inside the premises — when no indoor dining was yet allowed. For that alleged violation, the state is looking to revoke the restaurant's license permanently

The state said that since March, ABC has taken action 159 times in response to COVID-19-related violations by establishments with liquor license, but Il Portico is the first establishment to see its liquor license suspended. Two bars — Post Time Pub in Blairstown and Mt. Royal Inn in East Greenwich — also face license revocation for allowing patrons to consume alcohol inside their premises on two separate occasions, it said.

Commenters on Il Portico's Facebook page over the last few days expressed support for the restaurant.

"What Murphy did to you guys today was inexcusable. Hang in there. I've never been but your place looks awesome" Michael Garofalo wrote.

Rules for Indoor Dining

Murphy and and State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli announced the following rules for indoor dining last week:

  • 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.

Murphy had originally announced indoor dining could resume as of early July — but then reversed course with just a few days to go, citing large unmasked crowds at some bars and spikes in COVID-19 spread throughout the country.

New Jersey's hospitalizations and rate of transmission remained far lower throughout the summer than during its own spikes in the spring, prompting restaurant and business associations to push back — saying Murphy was unnecessarily shuttering restaurants and putting some out of business entirely.

The governor warned last week that if New Jersey's statistics start suggesting increased spread again, he could further restrict restaurant activity — but said he'd only do so if there were clear indications it was responsible.

"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."

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