State lawmakers want to spend $30 million from New Jersey’s federal coronavirus response funds to help restaurants that prepared to reopen indoor dining in late June, only to see Gov. Phil Murphy change his mind.

The bill, S2704/A4413, was unanimously endorsed by the Senate and Assembly appropriations committees Monday and is scheduled for final legislative approval Thursday, which would send it to Murphy’s desk.

“There were many restaurants who spent a lot of money getting ready for the opening and then unfortunately they were unable to open,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union. “Hopefully this will support our restaurant industry. And as I said before, this is a bipartisan effort to try to keep them afloat during this difficult period of time.”

“We all felt the same way,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester. “It was greenlighted to go. A lot of these guys borrowed money on credit cards, put stuff in the freezer, put stuff in the refrigerator and then were told they couldn’t go. So hopefully we get a process here to at least get some help to them.”

Marilou Halverson, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association, said 35% of New Jersey’s small, independent restaurants will not survive the pandemic. They have less ability to borrow and, in the cases of those squeezed into New Jersey cities, less neighborhood room to pivot to outdoor dining.

“So they’re the ones that are at risk, and I don’t know about you, but I really like the culinary diversity of our state, and I do not want to be nothing but a state of just nothing but chain restaurants,” Halverson said.

Halverson said that in mid-March, when business shutdowns in response to the pandemic were ordered, 85% of all restaurant workers were furloughed or terminated. Of that 85%, 23% are back to work, she said.

On June 22, Murphy said the coronavirus conditions in New Jersey had improved to a point where additional business activity could restart, including indoor dining on July 2 at 25% of regular capacity. He made that formal in a June 26 order. Then on June 29 he paused the reopening, citing infection surges in other states.

“There was a date. People knew that there was going to be a date,” said Sen. Steve Oroho, R-Sussex. “And then the rug got pulled out from underneath them.”

Maroun Mattar of Macaluso’s banquet hall in Hawthorne and Mattar’s Bistro and Panther Valley Country Club, both in Allamuchy, said he spent around $38,500 in that week in June planning to reopen, including $6,600 for an air sanitizing system, $900 to hire and retrain workers, $11,000 for equipment and $20,000 for food. He said that wasn’t easy to afford after three months closed.

“All of that money spent, tens of thousands of dollars, had now been wasted,” Mattar said.

Diane Weiss, executive director of the New Jersey Licensed Beverage Association, said the losses have been “mind-boggling.” She said a solution beyond outdoor dining will be needed before the weather gets cold and warned the winter otherwise will be “a killing field for small family-owned businesses.”

Weiss said that “well over 30%” of New Jersey’s 7,000 liquor license holders are on credit default and urged that the $30 million be distributed as grants, not loans.

“Times are so bad for the on-premise sector that many of our members are already credit stretched to the maximum,” Weiss said. “Repayment will be difficult if not impossible.”

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