TRENTON — If a regional analysis of health data is useful for guiding school openings, should the same approach apply for businesses?

That’s essentially the case behind a bill endorsed by a Senate panel Thursday that would allow for county-based COVID mitigation plans. A similar bill was passed by an Assembly committee in November, so it’s possible the bill could land on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk in about a month.

Murphy has stuck with a statewide approach to decisions about business restrictions and reopening during the pandemic, but Tom Bracken, the president of chief executive officer of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said that needs to change.

“Along with the newly adopted tax incentive plan, this could build a foundation for recreating our image as a business-friendly state,” Bracken said.

John Cifelli, general manager of Unionville Vineyards in East Amwell, said it doesn’t make sense for regions with lower rates of infections and hospitalizations to be treated the same as hard-hit areas. Hunterdon County has registered the lowest case rate and death rate in the state.

“We know how to take care of ourselves. We know how to take care our customers, our communities,” said Cifelli, the executive director of the Winemakers Co-Op. “I ask you to let the people lead. Please let the economy recover.”

The approach would be similar to the color-coded map the state uses to guide school responses to COVID-19. This week’s update to that map shows all regions of the state at high activity levels, as has been the case since mid-November.

The bill advanced unanimously, though Sen. Joseph Cryan, D-Union, expressed concern that people would simply drive over to less-impacted areas if rules were loosened in some places but not others.

“If you do it by county, aren’t we just simply – I don’t know, aren’t we inviting the spread of the virus, at some level?” Cryan said.

In addition to the prospect of county-based reopening plans endorsed by the Senate Commerce Committee, the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee advanced bills that would provide a few new tax benefits.

One of the bills allows a tax deduction of certain expenses when a business’s federal Paycheck Protection Program loan is forgiven and excludes those forgiven loans from state income tax.

“We know the federal government has already said they will not be charging any tax on these loans, so this just confirms at the state level we are the same,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen.

“We really appreciate making this similar to what the federal government has finally agreed to do and make it a little bit easier for businesses, especially our smaller businesses, who are really trying to get out from under,” said Laura Gunn, director of government relations for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

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Another bill would allow a state income tax credit in the 2020, 2021 and 2022 tax years for nonresidential building improvement expenses made to reduce the spread of COVID-19, such as ultraviolet lighting, infrared thermometers, sneeze guards and shields, touchless entryways and ventilation.

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