By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
Gov. Phil Murphy Wednesday loosened up two restrictions on bars and restaurants — as well as other businesses — that could be key for how those in Montclair operate through the winter.
Murphy announced several categories of business and other indoor gatherings, starting Friday, will allowed to take in 35% of their normal capacity — up from the 25% they’ve been operating at since first being allowed to reopen a few months into the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The governor additionally lifted the 10 p.m. curfew on serving food or alcohol he first put in place just before Thanksgiving.
“We believe that we can make this expansion without leading to undue further stress on our health care system,” Murphy said Wednesday.
A prohibition on seating and indoor bar areas will remain. The changes, like the restrictions themselves, are made by executive order under the governor’s emergency powers for the pandemic.
Indoor entertainment recreation — including casinos and gyms — will also move from 25% to 35% capacity, as will personal care businesses.
The same will apply to indoor performance venues, and indoor gatherings for religious ceremonies and services, weddings, political activities and memorial services. Those categories of gatherings will have a maximum capacity of 150 people.
Montclair Center BID Executive Director Jason Gleason said the loosened restrictions were a “huge, major announcement that we are ecstatic about.”
“We’ve got a lot of really great restaurants in town, so much so that we are known as a restaurant town,” he said.
And the changes – especially ahead of the Super Bowl – mean opening up opportunities for those businesses, he said.
“It’s a really great sign that our state is headed in the right direction,” Gleason said.
In that, he cited many of the same rationales the governor gave for the more permissive rules — including an acceleration of coronavirus vaccinations and lower community transmission in recent weeks.
“We are able to take steps forward today because of the millions of you who have taken responsibility for ending this pandemic to heart – through constant social distancing, wearing your face masks, and exercising common sense,” Murphy said on Twitter.
Business groups including the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association have been pushing for looser restrictions for months. Gleason said many of Montclair’s often mom-and-pop-owned, socially conscious businesses have been understanding about rules put in place to curb the pandemic. The change, he said, “gives some light, gives some hope.”
“Would I rather that there wasn’t a pandemic and everyone could open up to 100 percent? Absolutely,” he said.
Montclair became a flashpoint for controversy over the governor’s restrictions on restaurant capacity, when the owners of Cuban Pete’s on Bloomfield Avenue refused to abide by them over the summer — eventually resulting in a shutdown on order from state authorities, and a padlocking of the business under a court order.
“It was the scariest thing I’d ever seen in my life [when the restaurant was ordered shut down]. For the first time in my life, I felt like a non-American,” owner Dominick Restaino said in October, at that point agreeing to comply by the state’s restrictions after insisting as recently a week earlier that he wouldn’t. Restaino had previously said the restrictions were choking businesses like his. Later in October, he and state authorities reached a deal allowing Cuban Pete’s to stay open.
Attorney Denis Driscoll, who’d represented Cuban Pete’s last year, wasn’t immediately available to talk when reached Wednesday around the same time. A person who answered the phone at the restaurant said no manager or owner was available as the restaurant hadn’t opened yet for the day.
Murphy Wednesday also announced the state would be investing another $5 million into the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority’s Small Business Lease-Emergency Assistance Grant Program. Applications will be available starting on Feb. 22 at njra.us.
Murphy said Wednesday the state would expand a partnership with pharmacies to make vaccinations available at their sites — announcing Rite Aid had signed on, but not yet providing further details. CVS announced Tuesday would offer vaccinations at 27 locations, including one in West Orange. Registration is required at CVS.com
All six of the state’s coronavirus vaccine “mega-sites” — including the one closest to Montclair, at the Meadowlands in Bergen County — were back open Wednesday after closures for this week’s snowstorms.