When will N.J. ease indoor dining limits? Restaurants should take new indoor sports order as a good sign, Murphy says.

Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday said he still doesn’t have a date for when he may increase coronavirus capacity limits on indoor dining at New Jersey’s restaurants.

But he encouraged people to take his new decision to allow indoor winter sports as a positive sign.

“I do hope it’s sooner than later,” Murphy told NJ Advance Media when asked when he’ll allow more indoor dining, which is currently capped at 25{066dbc63777e5ed549f406789d72fdeebd77a32711d57f7b38ff2b35c4ba2a42} of a restaurant’s capacity.

“We’re trying to make sure we have our arms around exactly why we’re seeing the numbers we’re seeing,” he added about the state’s COVID-19 figures, which have been rising in recent weeks. “We continue to like what we see coming out of restaurants and indoor gyms.”

The governor then pointed to an executive order he signed Monday allowing organized sports considered “medium risk” and “high risk” in the Garden State to resume contact practices and games indoors, with restrictions.

“I would think if you’re in that realm of a restaurant or another indoor organization, you’ll view that as a good sign,” Murphy said after an event in Hillsborough in which he announced $100 million more in federal funding to help restaurants, small businesses, and families.

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After months of banning it to help protect against COVID-19, the state allowed restaurants to offer indoor dining at 25{066dbc63777e5ed549f406789d72fdeebd77a32711d57f7b38ff2b35c4ba2a42} capacity and with other restrictions beginning Labor Day weekend.

Even though the state has seen spikes lately in new cases and more hospitalizations, state officials say there has been no evidence of the increases being linked to the resumption of indoor dining. And Murphy said last week he’s considering raising capacity in 10{066dbc63777e5ed549f406789d72fdeebd77a32711d57f7b38ff2b35c4ba2a42} increments.

Some lawmakers, business owners, and residents continue to push Murphy to move more quickly, fearing many restaurants may not survive as the weather turns colder, making outdoor dining less feasible. They also note number of other states in the area, including Connecticut and Pennsylvania, have increased indoor dining in recent months without causing outbreaks.

State Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-Morris, said Tuesday the indoor sports decision shows Murphy, a Democrat, should immediately increase indoor dining to at least 50{066dbc63777e5ed549f406789d72fdeebd77a32711d57f7b38ff2b35c4ba2a42}.

”Kids and coaches represent the same amount of families that most restaurants can serve at one time, with a constant flow of people in each instance,” Bergen said. “In fact, restaurants have a leg up on their ability to keep things clean.”

“The selective application of science is getting tiring,” the lawmaker added.

State Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, said restaurants have “demonstrated they are more than capable of serving the public, while simultaneously maintaining the health and safety of both staff and patrons.”

“Expanding the indoor dining limits and revising the indoor dining guidelines now will give these small businesses enough time to prepare their restaurants,” Singleton added. “More importantly, it will give them a fighting chance to survive.”

Some critics wondered why a close-contact sports like wrestling is now allowed when indoor dining is stuck at 25{066dbc63777e5ed549f406789d72fdeebd77a32711d57f7b38ff2b35c4ba2a42} capacity.

Dr. Edward Lifshitz, the medical director of the state’s Communicable Disease Service, said engaging in such sports are “not without risk,” but outbreaks related to sports “have been relatively limited” based on what the state Department of Health has seen.

“The Department of Health balances the risks of the activities along with the benefits,” Lifshitz said. “When bringing these activities indoors they are in a more controlled environment subject to rules and consequences set out by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Murphy was asked Tuesday why he’s allowing indoor sports when officials say part of the reason for cases rising lately is because more younger people are getting infected.

Murphy said indoor sports “do not appear … to be correlated with where the cases are coming from.”

Instead, the governor pointed to “congregant living,” especially among college students, as a concern. Plus, he said, outbreaks have been linked to ”a lot of intensity in and around indoor worshipping around religious holidays” of late.

New Jersey on Tuesday reported 993 more COVID-19 cases and seven additional deaths — the fourth time in six days officials have announced more than 800 positive tests. Meanwhile, hospitalizations related to the virus are above 600 for the seventh straight day.

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Brent Johnson may be reached at [email protected].

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