By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
When Gov. Phil Murphy announced this week New Jersey would soon end most of the capacity limits that have marked the state’s slow reopening in the coronavirus pandemic, “I think you heard a collective sigh of relief,” Jason Gleason, executive director of the Montclair Center BID, said.
“And maybe there was a ‘Woohoo’ under everyone’s breath,” he said.
It’s a major announcement for businesses, houses of worship and anyone planning a gathering. Businesses will still need to be able to maintain social distancing, which could set an effective ceiling on the people in a store or restaurant. But come May 19, most percentage-based capacity limits — for instance, on indoor dining, stores, personal care services and gyms (all currently at 50%) — will be gone.
Gleason, whose group represents much of Montclair’s downtown, said most business owners “really went through the ringer to survive” over the last year.
But he expects most will continue to exercise caution, some being more cautious than the state’s relaxed rules might require.
“Outside of just the pure sales numbers, I’m sure everyone is just yearning to have a connection again,” he 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 restaurateurs; 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.”
Iman Kevin Dawud of Masjid Al Wadud mosque on Bloomfield Avenue said Murphy’s announcement came at a great time — during Ramadan.
Next week, “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. But the mosque’s remote prayer services will continue for now, he said.
The loosened restrictions could also make it easier for schools to plan proms and graduations. Montclair High School and Montclair Kimberley Academy are each planning the activities, school officials have said.
Montclair also recently announced it would allow expanded sidewalk cafe permits — letting retailers use the full sidewalks in front of their shops, so long as pedestrian pathways could be provided in the parking lane of a business’s adjacent street. The township has also waived fees normally charged for the permits.
Gleason said he expects significant uptake on the option. “To me, it really speaks about recovery,” he said. “It’s not so much a survival tactic this year, but a way to thrive.”
The new rules come in two waves. On May 7, outdoor gatherings will increase to 500 people, from 200. Catered and other organized events, including proms, will be allowed up to 50%, with a hard limit of 250 people, up from the 25% or 150 people allowed prior to that date. Dance floors will be open at such events, but not at clubs or bars. Prohibitions on bar seating and buffets will be lifted.
On May 19, the outdoor gathering limit will be eliminated entirely. Catered and organized indoor gatherings will be allowed up to 250 people, but the percentage limit will be gone; other indoor gatherings will be allowed 50 people, up from 25. Capacity limits on indoor and outdoor dining, retail and most other businesses, as well as houses of worship, will be eliminated completely. Restaurants will still have to space tables 6 feet apart or use partitions. Indoor and outdoor pools will have no capacity limits.
The state’s COVID hub, at covid19.nj.gov, includes a complete list of rules and changes