The reopening: Most indoor capacity restrictions to be lifted May 19

Restaurants, bars, gyms, retail stores only will need to enforce social distancing (6 feet, but could change) and facial coverings

Most indoor capacity limits at restaurants, retail stores, gyms, hair salons, barber shops and offices will be lifted in New Jersey on May 19 as part of a coordinated regional effort with New York and Connecticut, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday.

Many outdoor capacity limits will be lifted entirely on that date, he said.

Other restrictions — such as the prohibition of bar seating — will be lifted starting this Friday.

The requirements for facial coverings — except for when eating and drinking — will remain, as will requirements for social distancing, but even those are being modified.

The announcements are by far the biggest reopening news since the state began shutting down in March 2020.

“These are the most aggressive steps we have taken to reopen to date,” Murphy said. “We feel confident that we can do this safely because our numbers have trended decisively in the right direction over the last three weeks.

“This means that the events that we all associate with summer, from fireworks displays to parades to the State Fair, can all go forward, as long as attendees are keeping 6 feet of distance. And, should the CDC revise its 6-foot distancing guidance, we will revise our requirement accordingly.”

Here’s a look at how (and when) restrictions will be lifted:

Friday: Increasing capacities

The state will increase the outdoor gathering limits to 500 individuals and increase the indoor room capacities to 50%, up to 250 individuals, for political gatherings, weddings, funerals, memorial services and performances, and reopen dance floors at private, catered events. The state also will increase capacities at large outdoor stadiums and venues with more than 1,000 seats to 50% of capacity.

All of these moves, announced last week, are being moved up to May 7. They had originally been intended to start May 10.

“We feel confident in moving up this timetable by three days, given the accelerated progress we are seeing in our vaccination program and hospital metrics, and lower daily case counts,” Murphy said.

Friday: Allowing indoor bar seating

All restaurant, tavern and bar owners should be prepared to ensure proper social distancing between patrons at their bars — either 6 feet distancing between groups seated at the bar or physical partitions, Murphy said.

“We are counting on restaurants and bar owners to enforce this guidance and prevent congregating at the bar, as we have warned all along that those situations present a high danger of allowing the virus to spread,” he said.

Friday: Allowing buffets, self-service foods

The state will lift the prohibition on buffets and other self-service foods at restaurants. Murphy said the state likely will maintain the current limitations requiring food and drinks to be consumed while seated.

Additionally, if you are not seated at your table while eating or drinking, he said you will continue to be required to wear a mask.

May 19: No limits on outdoor capacity

Murphy said the state anticipates completely removing the limit on outdoor gatherings.

“Instead of a hard cap on attendance, we will simply require that all attendees at any outdoor event keep social distances of at least 6 feet, and current mask requirements will remain in place,” he said.

May 19: No indoor capacity limits at restaurants — but distancing 

Murphy said the state will remove the current 50% capacity limit and allow restaurants to operate at whatever capacity allows them to continue to ensure a minimum 6-foot distance between groups.

“This will bring indoor dining in line with the current requirement for outdoor dining, which has never had a hard capacity limit, but has always been based on table spacing,” he said.

The state also will remove the prohibition on tables of eight persons or more. And tables may be spaced closer than 6 feet if Department of Health-compliant partitions are in use.

May 19: No indoor capacity limits at retail, health clubs, places of worship

Indoor settings or businesses currently governed by a percentage-based cap — religious services, retail establishments, gyms and fitness clubs, personal care businesses, indoor and outdoor amusement and recreation businesses, and indoor and outdoor pools — no longer will have a 50% capacity limit, Murphy said.

Instead, they will be governed by the requirement that a minimum of 6 feet of social distance between individuals and groups be maintained.

May 19: Increase in indoor capacity for gatherings and parties

The general indoor gathering limit, which applies to house parties and other purely social events, such as birthday parties, will be doubled, from 25 people to 50 people, Murphy said.

Catered events, funerals or memorial services, performances and political activities, which are currently limited to 50% of a room’s capacity, up to a maximum of 250 people, will see the percentage capacity limit be scrapped. These events will simply be limited to a maximum of 250 people so long as social distances can be maintained.

Gatherings overseen by commercial entities, whether they be conferences, expos or trade shows, also will be subject to the higher 250-person limit.

May 19: Increased capacity at indoor sporting events, concerts

Large indoor venues with 1,000 or more fixed seats can operate at 30%, while maintaining the requirement that ticketed groups remain at least 6 feet apart, Murphy said.