Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday, in a joint announcement with New York and Connecticut, the majority of the COVID restrictions on the state’s dining industry would be rolled back on May 19. Both indoor and outdoor restaurants will be allowed to operate at full capacity, as long as patrons wear masks indoors and parties are separated by at least six feet. If tables are separated by plexiglass or other protective barriers, they may be placed closer together. Parties will also no longer limited to eight people.
Bar seating — something Murphy said restaurants have pushed for — may return this Friday, May 7, following the same rules. The ban on buffets and other self-service foods at restaurants ends that day, as well.
“The (state) Department of Health is currently finalizing its guidance, but all impacted restaurant, tavern, and bar owners should be prepared to ensure proper social distancing between patrons at their bars,” Murphy said at his latest COVID-19 briefing in Trenton. “Either 6 feet distancing between groups seated at the bar or physical partitions.”
Current capacity limits are 50% for indoor dining and unlimited for outdoor dining as long as social distance is maintained.
Murphy was asked Monday what message he has for restaurants who may not be able to operate at full capacity because of the 6-foot requirement or because they can’t afford to build partitions. He said officials rejected simply raising capacity limits from 50% to 75% because of that rule.
“This is the most responsible, biggest step we feel we can take,” the governor said.
Murphy also noted that the 6-foot requirement is based on recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and that the state will drop it if the CDC does. He said he expects that will happen.
MORE: As N.J. restaurants celebrate end to COVID rules, some fear it’s not enough
Monday’s announcement comes more than a year after New Jersey announced its first COVID-19 case and as the state’s numbers continue to improve due to vaccination efforts.
New Jersey’s restaurant industry has been battered by the pandemic, with scores of businesses closing due to myriad challenges posed by the virus. The crisis limited restaurants to takeout and delivery service for the first few months, before outdoor dining returned in June. Indoor dining resumed in September with 25% capacity. The limit was pushed to 50% in March 2021.
Murphy cautioned that a backslide in COVID numbers could delay the return to 100% capacity and removal of other restrictions but emphasized he had faith that wouldn’t happen.
“These are the most aggressive steps we have taken to reopen to date, and we feel confident that we can do this safely because our numbers have trended decisively in the right direction over the last three weeks,” Murphy said. “We have done exactly what we have said we would do all along — make these decisions based on our public health metrics, not politics.”
NJ Advance Media staff writer Brent Johnson contributed to this report.
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.