TRENTON — Capacity restrictions in New Jersey related to COVID-19 will be significantly reduced this month, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday following a similar announcement from New York state.
As of May 19, restaurants, stores, casinos, salons, barber shops, gyms, indoor and outdoor pools, amusement facilities, places of worship, and theaters will be able to operate at 100% capacity so long as 6-foot social distancing and masking requirements remain in place, Murphy said during his regular COVID-19 response briefing.
“Should the CDC revise its 6-foot distancing guidance, we will revise our requirements accordingly,” he said. “My guess is that that 6-foot number will come down.”
Other capacity changes as of May 19 include: no limit on party size per table (currently at eight people); no limit on outdoor gatherings; 250-person limit on catered events, funeral or memorial services, performances, political activities, and commercial gathering; and 30% capacity limit for indoor fixed-seat venues with 1,000 seats or more such as concerts and sporting events.
In addition, effective Friday, socially distanced bar seating can resume in New Jersey. For both restaurant tables and bars, seating can be closer than 6 feet if barriers are in place. Buffets also can resume operations.
“These are the most aggressive steps we have taken to reopen to date,” the governor said. “We have done exactly what we said we would do all along. We have made these decisions on our public health metrics and not on politics.”
Maria Gatta couldn’t be more thrilled.
“It feels great, going back to normal,” said Gatta, who owns Red Room Cafe in Ventnor Heights. “I’m just ready for all of this to pass and get back to normal. We’re moving forward.”
Last year, Gatta ramped up catering operations to offset lost revenue and expanded outdoor dining onto Monmouth Avenue, which the city partially closed down to help summer businesses succeed.
Monmouth Avenue won’t be closed this year for dining, but she will still utilize the sidewalk for outdoor seating. She’s excited, though, to welcome more customers to dine inside.
“I think people who have their vaccine are eating indoors because they feel comfortable,” she said. “The first thing people say when they walk in is, ‘We’re vaccinated!’ and that’s great.”
Expanding indoor dining capacity and opening up bar seating “significantly helps the restaurant business,” said Michael Chait, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce.
“The smaller restaurants can’t really expand because of the 6-foot restrictions, but it really helps the larger businesses,” he said.
He added that lifting capacity restrictions on outdoor events is also a huge step in the right direction.
“It’s tremendous ... when you look at all of the (new) executive orders,” he said. “It’s as close to normal as possible.”
Murphy is also moving up the start dates for the increased capacity limits for indoor and outdoor gatherings released last week, from May 10 to May 7.
On April 26, Murphy announced indoor and outdoor gathering limits would increase to 50% and 500 people, respectively, as of May 10, and that dancing at these events could resume.
“We have been anxiously waiting for this announcement and cannot be happier for our businesses. As we approach the summer season we needed to have the capacity restrictions lifted for our restaurants and other indoor attractions,” said Diane Wieland, Cape May County’s tourism director. “We have heard from our businesses that they are able to address the 6-foot social distancing inside and outside and this is the boost they all needed to start the journey to regain the losses experienced last year.”
Murphy’s announcement followed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s similar announcement earlier Monday.
Cuomo said capacity restrictions in New York’s tri-state area, including New Jersey and Connecticut, will increase to 100% for many venues.
“Today is a milestone for New York state and a significant moment of transition,” Cuomo said at the start of his media briefing.
Cuomo said that the tri-state region is too interconnected not to make decisions in a coordinated manner.
“Most capacity restrictions will end across the tri-state area,” Cuomo said, from offices to hair salons to Broadway. “No capacity restrictions on all of those activities.”
In New Jersey, declining positive cases and hospitalizations due to the coronavirus, combined with a climbing, although slowed, number of vaccinated residents have led to the governor, in the joint move with New York and Connecticut, to ease restrictions.
According to data available on the New Jersey’s COVID-19 dashboard, there are 880 new confirmed cases as of Monday, a drop from 3,500 one month ago.
There were 16 new confirmed deaths related to the coronavirus, bringing the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 22,991.
There are 3.26 million New Jersey residents who have received the COVID-19 vaccine. The state’s goal was to reach 4.7 million or 70% of eligible residents by the start of summer.
Murphy said that the only way to ensure that the numbers keep trending in the right direction is to get more residents vaccinated.
The governor announced a series of new or expanded vaccine outreach initiatives, including “Grateful for the Shot,” which targets religious organizations, and “Shot and a Beer,” working with New Jersey craft breweries.
“Every single activity that we just discussed is substantially safer if you are vaccinated,” Murphy said.
Responding to questions regarding the economic effectiveness of lifting capacity restrictions for conferences that typically welcome thousands, and restaurants that don’t have the space to add more seating due to the 6-feet rule, Murphy said he knows it’s not “the promised land.”
“But at least its a step, a meaningful step, in the right direction,” he said.
Murphy said that allowing for bar seating was a big factor for restaurants, and noted that casino venues like at Ocean Resort, Borgata or Hard Rock could utilize the 250-person limit per room, and the 30% capacity for large fixed-seating venues, to hold conferences.
“I’m not suggesting that it’s full on open for business, but I think it’s a pretty meaningful step,” Murphy said.
Following Murphy’s announcement, local business advocates in the Jersey Shore region said it was welcome news ahead of Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer here.
“With the restrictions being lifted and capacity restored we are feeling that people will have the confidence to gather, support small businesses and enjoy the summer safely,” said Lori Pepenella, chief executive officer of the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce. She added that there is a tremendous need for workers.
Staff writer CJ Fairfield contributed to this report.
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