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It’s the dead of winter and COVID-19 restrictions continue to assail the restaurant and hospitality industry. 

But legislative efforts are continuing to help many of these surviving establishments, which have been the hardest hit during the pandemic. 

“It is a positive to see that our policymakers understand the very serious plight of our dining industry and are taking action,” said NJBIA Vice President of Government Affairs Christopher Emigholz. “Now it’s critical that these bills get to the finish line quickly.” 

On Wednesday, NJBIA supported a six-bill package to help restaurants and other small businesses suffering from the economic fallout of COVID-19 – which included a pathway for establishments to expand to 50% capacity if they meet safety measures and there is lower coronavirus activity in their region. 

One of the bills would allow restaurants to fill more seats by putting up physical barriers around seating areas is six feet of distance is not possible. 

Another bill would also require the state Division of Alcohol and Beverage Control to waive the $75 permit fee that businesses pay for temporary permits to serve patrons outdoors near their licensed premises during COVID-19. Refunds would be given to businesses that have already paid the fee.  

“These bills will provide a roadmap for restaurants to innovate and continue to be as successful and safe as possible given the current realities of the pandemic,” Emigholz said. “This package does a lot to provide more certainty and predictability to restaurants struggling with some of the overly restrictive limits that have been placed upon small businesses.”  

Earlier in the week, another unanimous vote for a bill allowing outdoor dining expansion was sent to the governor’s desk.  

Bill S-3340 passed 34-0 in the Senate and 75-0 in the Assembly on Monday, without any committee votes preceding it.   

Last week, Gov. Phil Murphy vetoed bill A-4525, which allowed businesses wanting to expand outdoor operations to apply, at no cost, to a local zoning office. That office would have had 15 days to approve the application if it complied with the bill’s requirements.  

In his veto statement, Murphy contended that municipalities would have almost no ability to reject an application on public health or safety concerns.  

NJBIA President and CEO Michele Siekerka called that decision “disappointing” as it removed the opportunity for restaurants, bars and breweries to “expand and innovate.”  

Sen. Paul Sarlo then sponsored a new slightly adjusted bill that still calls for establishments to apply to their local zoning office to extend their footprints in parking lots, public sidewalks and decks.  

However, S-3340 empowers municipalities with more discretion to reject applications and still allows them to collect a fee unlike the vetoed bill.  

“We’re hopeful this updated bill will be quickly signed by the Governor,” Emigholz said. “We are also happy to see the Legislature take this up right after the veto as these establishments are obviously struggling after months of restrictions. They need to be able to plan for when the weather gets warmer to give them the flexibility they need to survive.”