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By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

Gov. Phil Murphy Friday took another step to ease restrictions on restaurants — the second this week — signing legislation that lets municipalities provide outdoor spaces for restaurants to treat as part of their footprint.

The measure, aimed at expanding outdoor dining capacity for New Jersey restaurants, follows an executive order Murphy issued last year to the same effect, but with extended deadlines. With a municipality’s approval, a restaurant could use public sidewalks or other outdoor spaces as extensions of its business.

“As we weather the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are continually trying to find new and innovative ways to aid our state’s business community while not sacrificing our public health,” Murphy said in a press statement. “This bill will give our restaurants more certainty for the future so they can once again lean into the outdoor expansions we allowed this past summer to help recoup losses and strengthen their businesses and the jobs they support.”

The bill extends the period for special ABC permits issued last year, allowing outdoor dining and liquor service through November of 2022, or whenever New Jersey allows restaurants to once again serve customers at full indoor capacity — whichever is later. The extension is automatic for all existing permitholders.

The bill also creates a framework for municipalities to review and approve use of outdoor spaces for businesses without liquor licenses, as well as for those with liquor licenses that haven’t yet yet received the permits.

The bill additionally allows craft alcoholic beverage sales at farmers markets.

Earlier this week, Murphy announced he was loosening the capacity limit on many indoor businesses — including for indoor dining at restaurants. Effective Friday, the affected businesses can house up to 35% of their normal capacity. They’d been limited to 25% since first being allowed to serve customers several months into the coronavirus pandemic.

Montclair Center BID Executive Director Jason Gleason told Montclair Local earlier this week 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. Gleason said many Montclair business owners were often understanding about state-issued restrictions, and mindful of the serious dangers posed by the pandemic, but glad to have more flexibility.

Montclair became a flashpoint for controversy over the governor’s restrictions on restaurant capacity last summer, when the owners of Cuban Pete’s on Bloomfield Avenue refused to abide by them — 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.

Also Friday:

• Murphy suggested teachers could be among the next people to become eligible for vaccinations in New Jersey — currently open to limited groups including first-responders, health care workers, those over 65 and those with serious illnesses. In an ongoing dispute with the Montclair Education Association and the public school district over returning students and teachers to schools for in-person learning, several union members and others have said vaccinating teachers is the only way to create a safe environment. That includes Mayor Sean Spiller, also the vice president of the New Jersey Education Association, during a recent interview with the New York Times.

“At the head of the list are our educators so we can support our school districts in moving toward an in-person learning environment,” Murphy said Monday.

But Murphy also said New Jersey needs far more doses to meet the demand for vaccinations statewide. He said the state is “continuing to maximize every dose we’re given” through its vaccine “mega-sites” and community-level distributions.

• New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson has submitted an application for emergency use authorization of its one-shot coronavirus vaccine. The vaccine, in testing, has lower overall efficacy than two existing two-shot vaccines, but a simpler regimen and high success rates for preventing serious illness.