N.J. to drop many COVID restrictions May 19. Restaurant, indoor capacity limits eliminated, but social distancing rules remain.

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Frank Consoli, a bartender at Martell's Waters Edge restaurant, mixes a drink last June.

New Jersey will join New York and Connecticut in dropping many of its largest remaining coronavirus restrictions May 19, including eliminating fixed indoor capacity limits at restaurants, gyms, retail businesses, and churches — though mask and social distancing regulations will remain — while also ending all outdoor gathering caps.

Gov. Phil Murphy revealed the plan Monday in a joint regional announcement with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, both of whom are making similar moves in their states about 14 months after the pandemic began ravaging the tristate area.

The capacity rollback will affect restaurants, gyms, hair and nail salons, barber shops, retail shops, movie theaters, museums, places of worship, and amusement parks, all of which are currently limited to 50% capacity in New Jersey.

Under the change, there would be no limit, as long as businesses and venues can keep patrons or parties of patrons 6 feet apart, based on federal Centers for Disease Control guidelines. Restaurants can also build physical partitions to allow for closer seating.

Meanwhile, seating at indoor bars in New Jersey will be allowed to resume starting Friday, with the same restrictions on social distancing. Buffets will also be allowed to return that day.

But this is not quite a full reopening for New Jersey, nor does it mean restaurants and stores will look like they did pre-pandemic. People must still wear a mask for all indoor activities unless they are eating or drinking.

Plus, the 6-foot social distancing requirement likely means some restaurants — especially smaller ones — will still be unable to have full capacity. Same for many theaters and other venues with fixed seating.

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Murphy said if the CDC drops or reduces those guidelines — which he expects will happen — New Jersey will follow suit.

The state will also continue to have capacity limits for indoor catered events, parties, and large entertainment venues. Still, Murphy said he hopes to take more reopening steps in the coming weeks.

The three states are still discussing capacity limit changes for stadiums, Cuomo said. New Jersey’s limit for stadiums with at least 1,000 seats will increase to 50% on Friday.

Murphy also noted that eliminating New Jersey’s outdoor gathering limits means “the events that we all associate with summer, from fireworks displays to parades to the state fair, can all go forward, as long as attendees keep 6 feet of distance.”

The changes will take effect 10 days before Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer at the Jersey Shore.

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The moves come slightly more than a year after Murphy and the other two governors temporarily shut down these businesses to fight the pandemic. New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut have been among the hardest hit by the virus and have also had some of the most restrictive rules, though they have gradually allowed the businesses to reopen under restrictions over the past year.

Murphy said this change is possible because New Jersey’snumbers continue to improve while vaccinations increase.

“These are the most aggressive steps we have taken to reopen to date, and we feel confident that we can do this safely because our numbers have trended decisively in the right direction over the last three weeks,” the governor said Monday afternoon duringhis latest coronavirus briefing in Trenton.

Starting May 19, New Jersey will:

  • Remove all outdoor gathering limits, though all groups must keep at least 6 feet of distance from each other and wear a mask when social distancing isn’t possible.
  • End capacity limits on religious services, stores, gyms, personal care businesses, indoor and outdoor amusement parks, as long as those places can keep at least a 6-foot distance between groups.
  • Increase the capacity limit for events at indoor venues with 1,000 or more fixed seats to 50%, as long as ticketed groups are separated by at least 6 feet.

Meanwhile, some reopening steps planned for next Monday in New Jersey were pushed up three days to Friday — including outdoor gathering limits increasing from 250 to 500 people and size limits of indoor catered events, such as weddings and proms, increasing to 50% capacity, with a maximum of 250 people.

MORE: N.J. moves up some COVID reopening steps for proms, allows bar seating and buffets starting Friday

Murphy said all the changes will happen and remain “so long as we don’t see a backslide in our metrics” but added that he has “every expectation” New Jersey will “hit this May 19 target date with a bullseye.”

The governor was asked what message he has for restaurants that won’t be able to reach full capacity because of the 6-foot requirement or because they can’t afford putting up partitions. He said officials rejected simply raising capacity limits from 50% to 75% because of that rule.

“This is the most responsible, biggest step we feel we can take,” Murphy said.

Monday’s news comes two weeks after Connecticut announced its plans to lift all outdoor restrictions May 1 and all other business restrictions, except indoor masking, May 19. Meanwhile, New York City last week announced plans to “fully reopen” by July 1.

Until Monday, Murphy had resisted releasing a broad timeline for New Jersey’s reopening and has announced incremental steps instead, saying the state is too densely populated to reopen at once.

Republicans have pushed Murphy, a Democrat seeking re-election in November, to move more quickly or to at least release target dates. And on Friday, a fellow Democrat, state Sen. Dawn Addiego, D-Burlington, called on the governor to lift all capacity limits in the state by July 1.

About a third of New Jersey’s small businesses have shuttered during the pandemic, while more than 2.1 million New Jersey workers have filed for unemployment’s benefits.

Cuomo called Monday’s plan “a major reopening of economic and social activity” in the tristate region. The New York governor also said while all states won’t have the same rules, they will “complement one another” and won’t “encumber one another.”

Though the three governors have not acted in lockstep throughout the pandemic, Murphy said they felt these new steps were “so meaningful” that it made sense to coordinate.

Michele Siekerka, president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, called Monday’s announcements “welcome news,” saying it’s “beyond time that New Jersey is fully reopened.”

“For our New Jersey businesses that have been able to hold on during closures and restrictions, we must do all we can to help them rebound quickly,” Siekerka said. “We must get their workforce back, halt any additional mandates, and continue to assist with capital investments to address how they deliver their products and services into the future.”

State Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Passaic, on Monday called for Murphy to also allow all state government offices to reopen, including unemployment walk-in centers.

“We continue to hear from hundreds of unemployed workers who can’t resolve their claims online or over the phone to get the benefits they’re owed,” Corrado said. “It’s unbelievable they still can’t walk into an unemployment center to quickly resolve whatever issues they’re having in a face-to-face conversation.”

Murphy said he will continue to reopen government offices on a case-by-case basis.

“It will depend on the office,” he said.

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More than 3 million people have been fully vaccinated in New Jersey as of Monday — roughly 45% of the state’s 6.9 million adults. The state’s goal is to have 70% of the state’s eligible population — about 4.7 million people — vaccinated by the end of June. More than 4.2 million people — about 62% of adults — have received at least one vaccine dose.

Officials on Monday announced an effort called “Operation Jersey Summer” to help make sure the state meets its goal of having 70% of adults vaccinated by the end of next month now that demand has begun to decrease. That includes offering walk-up hours at the state’s six vaccination mega-sites, making vaccination numbers more localized, mobile vaccination units, and having people knock on doors.

“We’re in the last big assault in this pandemic,” Murphy said. “We have to succeed in that assault.”

New Jersey on Monday reported another 880 confirmed coronavirus cases and an additional 16 deaths — the first time since Oct. 17 the state had reported fewer than 1,000 cases in one day.

There were 1,424 coronavirus patients hospitalized across the state as of Sunday night, the lowest number since Nov. 6. And the latest statewide rate of transmission has plummeted to 0.37, the lowest since the pandemic began.

The state’s seven-day average for confirmed positive tests dropped on Sunday to 1,614, down 61% from a month ago and the lowest that number has been since Nov. 1.

New Jersey, a state of 9.2 million people, reported 25,616 residents have died from complications related to COVID-19 — including 22,991 confirmed deaths and 2,625 fatalities considered probable. The state has the most coronavirus deaths per capita among American states.