Murphy veto of bill expanding options for bars/restaurants is unnecessary blow to small business

Giving owners assurances that new rules will remain in place for foreseeable future would enable more to start investing in new norm

Eric Orlando, the executive director of the Brewers Guild of New Jersey, wanted to be diplomatic. He heaped plenty of praise on Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration on actions they have taken regarding alcohol-use laws in the state since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

“Right from the start of this, the ability to do some of these things outside — things they created just in the reaction to what was going on — was great,” he said. “We haven’t seen alcohol policy and laws move this quickly, ever.

“Week-by-week, they were trying to come up with things to try to help folks out, regarding things such as home delivery privileges or allowing distilleries to make hand sanitizer. These are things that weren’t on the books until the governor issued an executive order — which was great.”

The governor’s orders have not been a cure-all for the restaurant and bar industry. Far from it. But the ability to operate under some new rules has helped tremendously. It’s why Murphy extended many of the privileges that originally ended in November to the end of March. And why he seemingly will add to that extension at the end of March — if COVID-19 numbers continue on the trend they are on.

Still, Orlando said he was disappointed when Murphy vetoed legislation (A4525/S3128) on Tuesday that would have expanded outdoor opportunities for restaurants, bars, distilleries and breweries.

The bill that would have guaranteed many of the rules currently in place — and added a few others — for the foreseeable future. It also would have streamlined many of the new rules regarding alcohol sales, which currently can vary from municipality to municipality.

The bill, which passed unanimously in the Senate and the Assembly, would have allowed businesses wanting to expand outdoor operations to be able to submit an application to a municipal zoning office, which would have had just 15 days to act.

Murphy said doing so would take away too much oversight on alcohol use.

“Because aspects of the bill encroach on the authority of both the (Alcoholic Beverage Control) and municipal governments to protect the public’s health and safety, and because many of the bill’s goals have already been achieved, I am unable to support it,” he said in the veto.

Business leaders didn’t feel the same way.

Assuring restaurant and bar owners that they would be able to operate outdoors for an extended period of time would make them more likely to invest in doing so, Orlando said.

The point is sound.

“If you knew that, a year from now, you could keep doing what you’re doing outdoors, you might put some money together to try to improve that space or try to change your business model a little bit, so you could sooner acclimate to what the new normal is potentially going to be,” Orlando said.

In other words, it would give them cover to pivot to what many feel is a future of more outdoor dining.

“Even when people start getting the vaccine, who knows if people are going to feel comfortable going back inside,” he said.

The law also would have enabled local alcohol producers to sell their wares at farmers markets, which Orlando admits also isn’t a cure-all. Far from it. But it would have helped this struggling sector.

“There’s only so many farmers markets out there,” he said. “But it would have been another place that a local distillery or brewery could have sold a six pack of beer or a bottle of whiskey.”

Orlando thinks it would have helped other businesses, too.

“The sponsors put this in to help out the local craft alcohol producers, but I think it also would have helped organizers of these farmers markets — maybe help them attract a little more foot traffic, which would help other local businesses there,” he said.

Orlando remains confident than many of the provisions currently in place will stay in place. That’s why he said he is disappointed, but not defeated.

But, still, a little bit of uncertainty in the most uncertain of retail times would have been nice.

“What we’re trying to get across is basically, ‘If you give us enough of a heads up, and we know what the rules are going to be in place for the foreseeable future, we’ll figure it out,’” he said.

“It’s harder when we don’t necessarily know when the next shoe is going to drop based on what the transmission rate is and where they think that community spread is happening. It’s tough.”

It’s business-crushing.

“There’s some people that have changed their business to try to deal with how people are consuming alcohol now,” Orlando said. “But there are some businesses that just can’t do that.

“So, this is the type of thing that could keep those businesses from going under.”