By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
New Jersey will end all percentage-based capacity limits for retail stores, houses of worship, gyms, personal care services and a host of other facilities this month — part of a massive rollback of restrictions that have been in place, to one degree or another, since the novel coronavirus pandemic began.
It’ll also soon end size limits on outdoor gatherings, allow larger indoor gatherings and allow larger catered events. Bar seating will be allowed once again.
“With our COVID-19 numbers, particularly hospitalizations, trending decisively in the right direction and our vaccination goals within reach, now is the time to take major steps to reopen our economy and loosen both indoor and outdoor gathering and capacity restrictions,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in an announcement from his office Monday. The steps are being coordinated with New York and Connecticut, and will go into effect “barring an unexpected uptick in the COVID-19 numbers,” the governor’s office said.
Paul Giordano, owner of Sweet Home Montclair and president of the Upper Montclair Business Association, said he couldn’t yet speak for other retailers or restauranteurs; he first heard about the governor’s announcement when reached by Montclair Local Monday afternoon.
But personally, he said, “I would still be a little nervous, dropping all of that, especially inside small shops.”
Earlier this year, Jason Gleason, executive director of the Montclair Center BID that represents many of the township’s downtown businesses, said local owners have been understanding about the restrictions in place until now. He was speaking in February, when Murphy boosted restaurant capacity to 35% of normal levels, from 25%. Even then, he expected many owners would exercise caution.
“Would I rather that there wasn’t a pandemic and everyone could open up to 100 percent? Absolutely,” he said at the time.
Iman Kevin Dawud of Masjid Al Wadud on Bloomfield Avenue said Murphy’s announcement came at a great time — during Ramadan.
“In 11 days we will be celebrating one of our biggest celebrations which is Eid al-Fitr, the celebration of the end of Ramadan. We will celebrate in a park, which is great,” he said.
In general, the mosque will continue making prayer services available remotely, he said.
Even in places where percentage limits are removed entirely, there will still be capacity constraints caused by continued requirements to maintain six feet of social distance.
The slate of loosened restrictions could also make it easier for schools to hold proms and graduation ceremonies. Montclair Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said last week Montclair High School was making plans for both. Montclair Kimberley Academy head of school Tom Nammack a graduation would be held Van Brunt Field, and a prom would be held indoors, at an off-site venue.
The loosened restrictions will occur in two phases. Starting May 7, the limit on outdoor gatherings will increase to 500 people, from 200. The maximum capacity on large outdoor venues with 1,000 fixed seats or more will go up to 50%, up from 30% for venues with 2,500 seats.
Also on that date, catered events — including proms — will be allowed up to 50%, with a hard limit of 250 people, up from the 35% or 150 people allowed now. That includes proms. Dance floors will be open at catered events, but remain closed at bars and nightclubs. Prohibitions on bar seating and buffets will be lifted. Carnivals and fairs will operate at the same capacity as other outdoor amusements.
On May 19, the outdoor gathering limit will be eliminated entirely. Indoor gatherings other than catered events or others overseen by an organization will be allowed to have up to 50 people, up to 25. Commercial gatherings or others overseen by organizations will be allowed up to 250 people.
And on that date, there will be no percentage capacity limits for indoor or outdoor businesses, including dining. Tables at restaurants would still have to be six feet apart unless they have partitions that comply with state requirements. A prohibition on tables with more than eight people will be lifted.
Houses of worship, gyms, personal care services, indoor and outdoor amusements, indoor and outdoor pools will have no capacity limits. Catered events will still be capped at 250 people, but with no percentage limit.
A capacity limit for large indoor venues will increase from 20% for venues of at least 2,500 seats, to 30% for venues with at least 1,000 seats. A requirement that groups be seated six feet apart will remain, but individuals who purchase tickets as a group may sit together.
Montclair recently began offering business owners permits for expanded sidewalk access — letting them use the full sidewalk areas in front of their stores — so long as pedestrian pathways could be provided in the parking lane of a business’s adjacent street.