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

New Jersey will join New York and Connecticut in eliminating many of its biggest coronavirus capacity limits on May 19, including indoor caps at restaurants and stores, while also ending all outdoor gathering caps — though indoor mask and social distancing restrictions will remain, the state’s governors announced Monday.

Restaurants, gyms, personal services, movie theaters, stores, museums, and amusement parks will be allowed to operate without set indoor capacity limits for the first time in more than a year, Gov. Phil Murphy said in a joint announcement with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont.

The announcement comes nearly 14 months after New Jersey announced its first COVID-19 case and as the state’s numbers continue to improve while vaccinations increase.

But it’s not a full reopening. People must still wear a mask for all indoor activities unless they are eating or drinking. Plus, restaurants must keep a six-foot distance between tables, unless there are physical barriers, which would allow closer seating. And groups at indoor stores and other facilities must also be kept at least six feet apart.

That likely means some restaurants, as well as many theaters and other venues with fixed seating, will still be unable to operate at full capacity.

Meanwhile, seating at indoor bars will be allowed to resume, with the same restrictions on social distancing, starting on Friday.

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

“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,” Murphy said during his latest coronavirus briefing in Trenton.

Starting May 19, New Jersey will:

  • Remove all outdoor gathering limits, though all groups must keep six feet of distance from each other and wear a mask when social distancing isn’t possible.
  • End capacity limits at restaurants, as long as they keep at least a six-foot distance between parties, unless there is a physical partition between them. Tables will also no longer be limited to eight people. Currently, capacity at restaurants is limited to 50%.
  • 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 six-foot distance between groups. Currently, capacity is limited to 50%.
  • Increase the indoor gathering limit for house parties and other social events will increase from 25 to 50 people. Catered events, as well as conferences, expos, and trade shows, will be limited to a maximum of 250 people, as long as social distancing is maintained.
  • 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 six feet.

Meanwhile, some additional reopening steps planned for next Monday 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.

Murphy said all the changes will happen and remain unless the state sees a “backslide in our metrics.”

Connecticut had already announced that it planned to lift all restrictions, except indoor masking, by May 19. And New York City announced plans to lift all restrictions by July 1.

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

Republicans have pushed him 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.

State Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Passaic, on Monday called on 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.

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. We must be mindful that, with the losses they have sustained and the inflationary costs they are realizing today, we cannot put any new mandates on them.

CORONAVIRUS RESOURCES: Live map tracker | Newsletter | Homepage

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.

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.

NJ Advance Media staff writer Matt Arco contributed to this report.

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Brent Johnson may be reached at bjohnson@njadvancemedia.com.

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