New restaurant rules: No indoor eating/drinking after 10 p.m.; no drinking/eating at bar at any time

Gov. Phil Murphy made a number of adjustments to indoor and outdoor dining rules Monday in response to the growing number of COVID-19 cases in New Jersey, including:

  • Restaurants, bars and casinos, clubs and lounges must close their indoor eating at 10 p.m.;
  • Outdoor dining and takeout/delivery may continue after 10 p.m.;
  • No more bar seating at any point;
  • An easing of the 6-foot rule for indoor dining if Plexiglas protection is properly positioned;
  • An allowance for outdoor eating bubbles — what some call “igloo” eating — for what could be a more appropriate outdoor eating experience.

It’s a mixed-bag of adjustments — not the increased capacity restaurant and bar industry officials desperately want, but not the shutdown they feared.

Murphy, speaking at a COVID-19 briefing, said he is continuing to juggle health and economic concerns.

“To be clear, the last thing I want to do, or any of us want to do, is to shut our economy back down,” he said. “And, thankfully, we are not at that point. Looking at the data, we are taking surgical steps that we hope will help mitigate the current increasing rate of spread. No one up here wants to take the type of broad and all-encompassing actions like those we had to take in March.

“We are acting with more precision-based actions of what we’re seeing on the ground.”

Murphy and health officials said there is a developing fact pattern around an increase in cases in restaurants, especially among bartenders — who have to operate in close quarters around customers who need to remove their masks to drink.

He also noted the 10 p.m. closing will impact casinos’ ability to serve food and beverages, but not to have indoor gaming.

Marilou Halvorsen. (File photo)

Marilou Halvorsen, the head of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association, said her group pushed for the Plexiglas rule (which is especially helpful to small restaurants with limited indoor space) and the outdoor eating bubbles.

“We’ll take whatever we can get,” she told ROI-NJ.

Halvorsen is not thrilled with the 10 p.m. cutoff, saying it will impact some of her members — such as catering halls — more than it will others.

“You’re going to have to start planning your wedding so that it ends at 9 or 10,” he said.

Her biggest concern is for the industry as a whole. The outdoor bubbles will help — if establishments have money to buy them and space to use them — but they are not a permanent solution.

The 10 p.m. closing, especially during holiday season, will be difficult on owners and employees, Halvorsen said.

“We have to do something to benefit the employees who are going to get laid off because of the curfew and lack of outdoor dining because of the weather,” she said.

Eileen Kean. (File photo)

Eileen Kean, the state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the latest restrictions are unnecessary and potentially devastating.

“Small businesses have worked very hard for months to make their businesses safe by complying with every health protocol, regulation and restriction, so it will be devastating that some must now cut back their hours and face further seating restrictions,” she said. “When so many small businesses are barely staying afloat and many are already coping with strict capacity limits, another reduction in revenues could result in permanent closures.

“Instead of penalizing those business owners who are following the rules and already in danger due to lower revenues and fewer customers, the state should take a more targeted approach to curb the spread of the virus. This step backward could do irreparable damage in an already fragile economy.”

Murphy said the restrictions are necessary. More so, he said state residents need to refocus their efforts.

“We need to change our mindsets,” he said. “We have to shake off the pandemic fatigue that I know we all feel. I feel it by the way, as well. And we have to get back into the mindset that saw us crush the curve in the spring.”