New NJ COVID restrictions will force bars and restaurants to close early

Bars and restaurants will have to close early and youth interstate sports will be canceled under new restrictions announced Monday by Gov. Phil Murphy in an effort to curb rising cases of COVID-19. 

The new restrictions, which take effect Thursday, mean bars and restaurants must close inside by 10 p.m. as they head into what is typically one of the busiest times of the year for holiday parties, banquets and weddings, said Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association (NJRHA).

Bar seating will also be prohibited, Murphy said. 

"The last thing I want to do or any of us want to do is shut our economy back down and, thankfully, we are not at that point," Murphy said. "Looking at the data, we are taking surgical steps that we hope will help mitigate the current increasing rate of spread." 

Murphy and his top health officials did not present data showing outbreaks linked to bars and restaurants, but instead cited one Department of Health advisory reporting that nine bartenders and servers from Leggett's Sand Bar in Manasquan contracted COVID last month. Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said "this is just one example." 

The dining restrictions will apply to casinos, but gambling will still be allowed around the clock, Murphy said. Banquet halls will also have to close by 10 p.m., he said. 

"These people have already been moved two or three times, and they have their wedding coming on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so what does that do for those people?" Halvorsen said in an interview Monday. "We hear all the time it’s not coming from the industry." 

NJRHA estimates that nearly 40% of restaurants will close due to the pandemic.

"It is such a fallacy to believe that restaurants are the cause of the rise in cases," Halverson said. "Restaurants are the scapegoat. It's quick and easy to blame restaurants. But it's not the reality."

Indeed, Murphy has said repeatedly that there is no widespread evidence of transmission at bars and restaurants, but a lot of the increases have come from house parties and private gatherings, where it is much more difficult to enforce his executive orders. On Monday, he said "facts change" and "there's a developing fact pattern here." 

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Jerry Sullivan, of Passaic Park, sits down with his son on the first day of indoor dining at the Tick Tock Diner in Clifton, N.J. on Friday Sept. 4, 2020. Indoor dining was banned on March 16, 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The new restrictions come as New Jersey deals with a second wave of the virus and another 5,250 cases of coronavirus were reported over the weekend

Outdoor dining will not face the same restrictions. And as a measure intended to give more flexibility to restaurants, Murphy said he will allow tables to be spaced closer than the socially distant 6 feet apart if they are separated by barriers. He'll also allow fully enclosed, heated "dining bubbles" outdoors that must be cleaned between uses. 

Outdoor dining, which began June 15, had helped restaurants' stem their financial hemorrhaging. But with temperatures dropping, restaurant owners were growing increasingly nervous about their future. Many complained that 25% capacity indoors simply was not sustainable. 

"Can most restaurants make a profit at 25%?" Francis Schott, co-owner of Stage Left Steak and Catherine Lombardi in New Brunswick, said at the time. "No. But I'm hoping that 25% is a march toward 50% and then 75%, and eventually 100." 

That does not seem likely. Murphy did not give a timeline for the restrictions, but he said multiple times Monday that New Jersey is in a six-month window to beat back the virus. 

He did not issue any new restrictions on indoor gatherings, which he has said have been a large driver of the increases. The current maximum limit is 25 people.

Murphy said he didn't change the indoor gathering rules because he wanted to apply something that authorities "can actually realistically enforce." 

"It’s very hard to get inside of somebody’s house," Murphy said. 

On sports, all interstate indoor youth games and tournaments are prohibited. The rules apply to sports through high school, Murphy said. Indoor sports, especially hockey, present a greater likelihood of transmission, he said. 

"It simply is not safe for teams to be crossing state lines to participate in indoor competitions where there is a serious risk of spreading the virus," Murphy said. 

Dustin Racioppi is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to his work covering New Jersey’s governor and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.


Twitter: @dracioppi