After a difficult few months, New Jersey restaurants are gradually reopening their doors for on-premises dining. For restaurant operators and their customers, it is important to understand what is required to reopen safely. This article outlines the guidance provided by state and federal agencies with regard to issues ranging from cleaning and sanitation to social distancing.

New Jersey Guidance on Outdoor Dining

Commencing June 15, 2020, food and beverage establishments shall be permitted to open for outdoor dining. Restaurants offering outdoor dining must adopt the following protocols and policies:

  • Ensure all areas designated for food and/or beverage consumption conform to applicable local, State, and Federal regulations;
  • Limit capacity to a number that ensure patrons can remain six feet apart from all other patrons, except for those with whom they are sharing a table;
  • Ensure that tables seating individual groups are six feet apart in all directions and that individual seats in any shared area that is not reserved for individual groups, such as an outdoor bar area, are also six feet apart in all directions
  • Prohibit patrons from entering the indoor premises of the food or beverage establishment, except to walk through such premises when entering or exiting the food or beverage establishment in order to access the outdoor area, or to use the restroom;
  • Require patrons to wear a face-covering while inside the indoor premises of the food or beverage establishment, unless the patron has a medical reason for not doing so or is a child under two years of age;
  • Prohibit smoking in any outdoor areas designated for the consumption of food and/or beverages, and
  • Satisfy all standards issued by the New Jersey Department of Health.

As referenced above, the New Jersey Department of Health has established protocols for food and beverage establishments offering services outdoors. Under Executive Directive No. 20-014, restaurants must adopt mandatory protocols with regard to their operations, their employees, and their customers. Operational protocols include, but are not limited to, limiting seating to a maximum of eight (8) customers per table and arranging seating to achieve a minimum distance of six feet (6 ft) between parties and installing physical barriers and partitions at cash registers, bars, host stands and other areas where maintaining a physical distance of 6 feet is difficult.

Establishments must impose several requirements on employees, such as conducting daily health checks (e.g. temperature screening and/or symptom checking) of employees; requiring all employees to wear face coverings, except where doing so would inhibit the individual's health; requiring employees to wear gloves when in contact with customers and when handing prepared foods or serving food, utensils, and other items to customers; and providing all employees with face coverings and gloves.

With regard to customers, protocols include informing customers that safety measures such as social distancing, wearing face coverings when they are away from their table and unable to social distance or when they are inside the indoor portion of the premises of the food or beverage establishment (unless the customer has a medical reason for not doing so or is a child under two years of age), and hygiene practices must be adhered to while in the food or beverage establishment.

Federal Guidance on Restaurant Reopening

Federal agencies are also offering guidance for reopening restaurants and retail establishments that serve food. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has provided a food safety re-opening checklist for previously closed retail food establishments or those that have been open with limited service related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The checklist addresses: facility measures, such as increasing circulation of outdoor air and removing high touch self-service containers and items requiring frequent hand contact; water, plumbing, and ice; cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing food contact and non-food contact surfaces; food temperature control; product inspection and rotation; warewashing equipment ("warewashing" is the term used to describe the act of collecting and washing any kitchenware used in the preparation, serving or storing of food); handwashing stations; employee health/screening; and social distancing, such as minimizing face-to-face contact that allows, to the extent possible, at least a 6-foot distance between workers, customers, and visitors.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also continues to be a key source of COVID-19 guidance for New Jersey businesses. Its latest guidance for restaurants and bars, which was published on May 27, 2020, reflects the fact that many states are allowing restaurants to offer in-person dining and offers ways to protect employees, customers, and communities and slow the spread of COVID-19. 

The CDC guidance for restaurants and bars outlines several guiding principles, noting that “[t]he more an individual interacts with others, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread.” The CDC guidance also notes that the risk of COVID-19 spread increases in a restaurant or bar setting from lowest risk (food service limited to drive-through, delivery, take-out, and curb-side pickup) to highest risk (on-site dining with both indoor and outdoor seating. Seating capacity not reduced and tables not spaced at least 6 feet apart).

As restaurants are allowed to move to higher risk interactions, the CDC offers actions operators of restaurants and bars can take to help lower the risk of COVID-19 exposure and spread. They include personal prevention practices, such as handwashing and staying home when sick and environmental measures, such as cleaning and disinfection. The CDC also recommends requiring the use of cloth face coverings among all staff, as feasible.

Industry Guidance on Restaurant Reopening

The National Restaurant Association has published reopening guidance as well. It is designed to provide restaurant operators with a basic summary of recommended practices from federal agencies, such as the CDC and FDA, that can be used to help mitigate exposure to the COVID-19 virus. It focuses on four key areas: food safety; cleaning and sanitizing; employee health monitoring and personal hygiene; and social distancing.

The guidance emphasizes that many of the requirements of FDA’s existing Food Code apply to coronavirus mitigation. They include:

  • Prohibiting sick employees in the workplace
  • Strict handwashing practices that include how and when to wash hands
  • Strong procedures and practices to clean and sanitize surfaces
  • Ensuring the person in charge of a food service facility is a certified food safety manager
  • Ensuring the person in charge is on site at all times during operating hours

The National Restaurant Association also offers practical advice, such as the importance of embracing technology. It emphasizes that contactless payment systems, automated ordering systems, and mobile ordering apps can help interact with customers with less close contact. As restaurants begin to reopen, website updates and social media posts can provide the latest information, i.e. updated hours, outside dining options, new safety protocols, and reservation requirements, to potential customers.

Key Takeaway

While New Jerseyans are eager to get back to their favorite restaurants, health and safety will remain a significant concern for many. As operators update their existing policies and procedures to reflect COVID-19, it is imperative to review all federal, state and local regarding reopening. As with everything related to COVID-19, reopening requirements and best practices continue to evolve quickly, so it’s imperative to stay updated.

If you have questions, please contact us

If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, Michael Jimenez, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work, at 201-896-4100.