People dine outside a bakery on Palmer Square in Princeton on Aug. 3, 2022. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)
Two years after pandemic rules barred restaurants from serving customers inside, outdoor dining has become a staple of downtowns and Main Streets across the state.
Now a bill easing municipal rules on outdoor dining for another two years has become law, with Gov. Phil Murphy signing the measure at an East Rutherford pizza joint Thursday.
“Continuing this successful practice will not only benefit small business owners, but also many patrons who have come to enjoy the atmosphere and opportunities outdoor dining offers,” Murphy said under a tent outside Vesta Wood-Fired Pizza before signing the bill.
When pandemic-era executive orders barred indoor dining for about five months starting in March 2020, bars, restaurants, and breweries were allowed to place tables and chairs outside and use tents, canopies, and other coverings to offer outdoor seating. Many towns even allowed the construction of outdoor structures for restaurants in streets and parking spots.
Some local ordinances banned outdoor dining pre-pandemic, but a law signed by Murphy in February 2021 authorized the practice. That law, set to expire this November, will now be extended through November 2024, and allows outdoor dining from April 1 through November 30. The measure passed with overwhelming support from both chambers in late June.
Under the legislation, restaurants can use tents, umbrellas, canopies, chairs, tables, and other fixtures on private property or other spaces like sidewalks and parking spots that are approved by the local municipality.
Municipal approval may still be required, but the law doesn’t require restaurant owners to seek additional local zoning permits. It also extends special permits allowing liquor sales in outdoor areas.
Murphy noted a “significant portion” of $850 million in pandemic relief funds went to local restaurants through state Economic Development Authority grants. The pizza place where Murphy signed the bill received $230,000 in loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal program established in March 2020 to help business owners keep their workers employed.
State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), a prime sponsor of the bill, suggested making the outdoor expansion authorization permanent.
“It’s really cool to be outside, enjoy family and friends, enjoy a couple of drinks and some great food, and be part of the community,” said Sarlo.
Murphy said lawmakers can “color me open-minded to making this part of the furniture forever.”
While some business owners have said outdoor dining helped offset some losses from the earlier ban on indoor dining, some towns have moved to limit outdoor dining after residents complained about lost parking spots.
Murphy was also joined Wednesday by U.S. Rep Bill Pascrell Jr. and Luis de la Hoz of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“Restaurants provide a lot of jobs, and most of the minority business restaurants are located on Main Street. That’s why this help is really important for us,” de la Hoz said.
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