Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday vetoed a bipartisan bill that had been designed to help restaurants, breweries, bars, distilleries and farms expand businesses opportunities such as outdoor dining.

Marilou Halvorsen, president and CEO of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association, said she didn't understand why Murphy didn't sign the legislation because all options need to be on the table.

This particular piece of legislation, Halvorsen said, would have given restaurants more time to brainstorm what they will do when spring weather comes and vaccination numbers are significantly up.

"The more we can give restaurants the ability to plan, and to succeed when they can open up, is going to save jobs and save businesses," she said.

A study from TOP Data and Zenreach suggests that as the new year begins, spending in restaurants is down only 1% nationwide from a year ago, despite a major downturn caused by COVID-19 in mid-March 2020.

But in New Jersey, where pandemic restrictions have been more stringent than many other states and indoor dining has not yet been allowed to exceed 25% capacity, restaurant sales are down 24% year over year, according to that research.

That's bad, but Halvorsen believes the numbers in the Garden State may actually be much worse.

Eateries that relied on takeout and/or delivery services prior to last March are doing fine, she said, but it's those that have had to adapt and offer those options for the first time that are hurting the most.

And Halvorsen said we are unlikely to know how dire the situation truly is until all those businesses file their taxes.

"Full-service restaurants are down, and I think where you'd really want to start looking at those numbers is as the state starts getting the tax numbers in, and seeing how much the state's losing," she said.

The same holds true for hotels, for which Halvorsen said the last 10 months have been "devastating."

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Led by the statewide shutdown throughout April and into much of May, the second quarter of 2020 was dreadful for New Jersey restaurants, according to Halvorsen. Quarter three saw an uptick, with indoor dining resuming and outdoor dining widely available in the warm summer months, but the fourth quarter brought another dip — Halvorsen saying December sales may have been off by as much as 60%.

That, she said, does not set New Jersey up well for January, especially with the next big-meal-ticket items, the Super Bowl and Valentine's Day, still more than a month away.

"It normally is a slower time period, but think about all of those lost Christmas parties, even catered events because people were not in their office," Halvorsen said. "Going into January, maybe it won't be that much, maybe it'll only be 20 to 25%, because in the past, that usually is a slower time. So every month can really fluctuate."

One trend Halvorsen did say is on the increase: Many restaurants are reporting to her big spikes in gift card purchases, as diners want to support their favorite places — and be able to treat themselves, or others, when they're comfortable getting a table.

In vetoing the legislation, Murphy said in a written statement that the law would have been redundant because "many of the bill’s goals have already been achieved" and that it would also "encroach on the authority" of the Alcoholic Beverage Commission and municipal governments "to protect the public’s health and safety."

Michele Siekerka, president of the N.J. Business & Industry Association, called the veto disappointing.

"If the governor supported the intent of this bill, but thought it went too far, perhaps there should have been an effort to work with the Legislature for a conditional veto and still help ease these regulatory burdens on struggling businesses," she said in a written statement.

"Instead, with the rejection of this legislation, which was passed unanimously by the Senate and Assembly, operations like restaurants, bars and breweries lose opportunities to expand and innovate. It’s critical that businesses have these flexibilities for as long as it is needed to maintain their operations during this time."

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