(The Center Square) – The Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee agreed to two bills Wednesday that look to establish a commission to study the impact of COVID-19 on New Jersey’s 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 Bill Moen, D-Camden/Gloucester, one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “We need to understand the impact of this public health crisis in order to understand how to best help these businesses going forward.”
The bills were praised by the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.
“Like all issues, it is helpful to gather data in order to better understand the harm that COVID-19 has brought small businesses so that decisions can be made on how to better help them recover as quickly as possible,” said Christopher Emigholz, vice president of government affairs for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.
The bills were part of a package approved by the committee that lawmakers said they hoped would provide relief for restaurants and small businesses.
A-5133 would allow restaurants to offer indoor dining at 25 percent or 50 percent capacity depending on the region’s COVID-19 activity levels. Indoor dining is currently limited to 25% of a restaurant's capacity, and restaurants must be closed between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said she thinks restaurants should be allowed to open at a higher capacity and she would like to see the curfew lifted.
“I will tell to some degree, we have to make sure that consumer confidence goes along with that so I know that has been a bit of a struggle,” Halvorsen said during the meeting. “The reality is I don’t think we are going to get a 100% capacity, but we should be at 50% like most of the other states.”
A-5136 would allow restaurants to use physical barriers if they could not meet the six-foot distance requirement.
“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 Gordon Johnson, D-Bergen, one of the co-sponsors of A-5156. “We must do everything we can to prevent that from happening by giving restaurants the ability to safely continue serving customers.”
Two other bills created standards for outdoor dining tents and other coverings and addressed the cold winter months.
Assemblyman Robert Auth, R-Bergen, said restaurants are at a breaking point.
“I don’t know which is worse – a 1.3 percent infection rate in a restaurant or allowing people to sit outside in the frigid weather and catch their death of pneumonia,” Auth said. “What are we doing to the public here? I am going to vote yes to the bill, but this is absolutely contradictory to what the data says.”
Eileen Kean, state director for the New Jersey chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said the restaurant owners have been under extreme stress for almost a year.
“These bills will give small business owners more flexibility so they can bring in more revenue while continuing to protect the public and employees.,” Kean said.
The bills now go to the full Assembly for consideration.