Restaurants and other small businesses throughout the state are struggling to stay open while balancing COVID-19 health concerns. In an effort to assist Main Street businesses while protecting employees and customers, several Assembly Democrats sponsor a legislative package to waive fees, create uniformity for food establishments and study the effects of the pandemic. The Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee advanced the measures on Wednesday.
“The aim of this legislation is to help Main Streets throughout New Jersey survive and ultimately thrive again, by offering a degree of stability while ensuring the safety of staff and patrons,” said Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D-Camden, Burlington). “We know Main Street businesses are the backbone of our economy. Providing a reliable and clear path forward will help small businesses, particularly within the food and hospitality industry which has been one of the hardest hit industries in the state, stay in business both during and beyond this pandemic.”
One bill in the package (A-5133), sponsored by Assemblymen Greenwald and Nicholas Chiaravalloti, would allow food and beverage establishments to operate at either 25 or 50 percent capacity indoors, depending on the COVID-19 activity level in their region and whether the business has certified that established safety measures have been met.
“There is no doubt that our restaurants and food establishments have been hit hard by the pandemic,” said Assemblyman Chiaravalloti (D-Hudson). “If we want the businesses we all know and love to remain open, we must find solutions to the unique challenges they are facing. This legislation does just that.”
Another measure (A-5136), sponsored by Assemblymen Greenwald, Gordon Johnson and Nicholas Chiaravalloti, would help ensure patron safety while helping restaurants fill the permitted number of seats by allowing the use of physical barriers between seating areas if six feet of distance is not possible.
“Around 17 percent of restaurants throughout the country have already closed since the start of the pandemic, while nearly 40 percent of New Jersey restaurants may have to close within the next six months due to financial challenges posed by COVID-19,” said Assemblyman Johnson (D-Bergen). “We must do everything we can to prevent that from happening by giving restaurants the ability to safely continue serving customers.”
With many restaurants offering outdoor seating to make up for reduced indoor seating capacity, the package also aims to address various aspects of these outdoor operations.
A measure sponsored by Assembly Democrats Greenwald, Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Johnson (A-5137) would require the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) to waive the $75 fee for the permit that allows establishments to serve alcohol in areas adjacent to their premises.
“Many businesses had to improvise outdoor seating in response to necessary restrictions inside their restaurant,” said Assemblywoman Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “Every dollar counts when you’re trying to keep a business afloat, which is why this bill would require the ABC to waive or reimburse the $75 fee for the critical COVID-19 Expansion Permit allowing businesses to continue selling alcohol outdoors.”
Two additional pieces of legislation address the safety of outdoor structures restaurants have erected to shield guests from the elements.
A-5135, sponsored by Assemblymen Greenwald, Robert Karabinchak and Johnson, creates statewide standards for the use of tents and heaters, such as ensuring material is fire-retardant, heaters are kept away from combustible material, and entrances/exits to the tent are clearly marked.
“It is critical we give our restaurants the ability to adapt to these unusual circumstances while safeguarding the well-being of customers when it comes to the implementation of possible alternatives,” said Assemblyman Karabinchak (D-Middlesex). “Establishing simple safety standards will help prevent dangerous outcomes and ensure an enjoyable time for residents who visit their favorite eateries.”
A-5139, sponsored by Assemblymen Roy Freiman, Greenwald, Johnson and Chiaravalloti, addresses aspects of tents and other seasonal coverings, such as anchoring and snow accumulation.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, restaurants have relied on outdoor dining in order to keep their businesses afloat and it is imperative that they are able to continue to do so during the winter months,” said Assemblyman Freiman (D-Somerset, Mercer, Middlesex, Hunterdon). “This bill sets up guidelines that allow restaurants to skip the burdensome and time-consuming permit process related to snow safety so they can continue to run their businesses as smoothly as possible.”
The legislative package also includes a resolution (AJR174/199) sponsored by Assemblymen Bill Moen, Greenwald, Chiaravalloti, Johnson and Daniel Benson to establish a commission to study the effects of COVID-19 on small businesses.
“Businesses throughout New Jersey have been forced to reduce their hours of operation, limit capacity, implement layoffs and ultimately face the prospect of permanent closure if they can no longer pay the bills,” said Assemblyman Moen (D-Camden, Gloucester). “We need to understand the impact of this public health crisis in order to understand how to best help these businesses going forward.”
“The economic devastation of this pandemic is unlike anything we have seen in decades,” said Assemblyman Benson (D-Mercer, Middlesex). “Far too many entrepreneurs and employees have been affected by the hardships small businesses are facing. We must be prepared to address the needs of our business community if it is to survive.”
All six of the measures now head to the Assembly Speaker for further consideration.