N.J. restaurants could open to higher capacity and expand outdoor dining at no cost under new bills
A package of bills aimed at easing restrictions on to New Jersey restaurants trying to weather the pandemic is advancing in the state Legislature.
Lawmakers on Assembly committees approved five bills Wednesday waiving permit fees for restaurants and bars expanding their services outdoors, allowing restaurants to meet social distancing requirements by erecting barriers, establishing rules for outdoor tents and heaters, exempting restaurants with outdoor tents from snow certifications.
The proposed legislation would give establishments in regions of the state with lower caseloads a chance to open at higher capacity.
Business and hospitality lobbyists told lawmakers restaurants have been crushed by the pandemic and limits on their indoor seating, currently set at 25% of capacity.
“The restaurant and food establishment businesses have been struggling since the beginning of this pandemic, and we believe that these bills will provide the flexibility to allow these restaurants to continue to find a way to operate during these crucial winter months,” Hilary Chebra of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey told the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee during a remote meeting.
One bill (A5133) would permit restaurants in regions with a low or moderate coronavirus activity to increase their indoor capacity to 50%, provide they prove compliance with certain standards, such as social distancing, employee hand washing, masks, ventilation, cleaning and party sizes.
“Looking at the regional coronavirus activity is something that the chamber has advocated for as a common sense way to look at a responsible reopening,” Chebra said.
Another bill (A5136) would allow restaurants to separate tables with physical barriers rather than at six feet in all directions. The barriers must be between five and six feet high, according to the bill, which is meant to help smaller restaurants.
The Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control would waive or refund $75 fees paid by restaurants and bars applying to serve drinks outdoors, under another bill (A5137).
“Many businesses had to improvise outdoor seating in response to necessary restrictions inside their restaurant,” Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen, said in a statement. “Every dollar counts when you’re trying to keep a business afloat.”
Under one of the bills, (A5135) restaurants seeking to serve patrons in heated tents would be required to apply to their local fire official and meet various standards for fire-retardant tents, fire extinguishers, clearance around open flames and clearly marked entrances and exits.
With nearly 23% of restaurants across the country shuttered and many more at risk of closing their doors in a matter of months, New Jersey “must do everything we can to prevent that from happening by giving restaurants the ability to safely continue serving customers,” said Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, D-Bergen.
Assemblyman Robert Auth, R-Bergen, argued Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has placed unnecessary restraints on New Jersey’s restaurants, which he said have proven they can safely operate.
“I’m going to vote yes for the bill but this is absolutely contradictory to what the data says,” Auth said. “We’re sitting here debating whether they can have a tent or a furnace so they can eat outside and not freeze to death. This is absurd.
“I’m voting yes, but the governor needs to rethink this thing. We as a Legislature need to rethink this thing. And if he won’t do it then we need to take control from him and do that ourselves.”
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Source : https://www.nj.com/politics/2021/01/nj-restaurants-could-open-to-higher-capacity-and-expand-outdoor-dining-at-no-cost-if-lawmakers-have-their-way.html