The COVID pandemic has dealt a severe blow to the entire New Jersey economy but no industry has been harder hit than the restaurant industry.

When the coronavirus shutdown began in March, restaurants were only permitted to offer takeout service and they were not allowed to reopen for indoor service until September — at 25% limited capacity.

As the weather has turned colder, restaurants that had been offering expanded outdoor dining are no longer able to do so. And while many smaller eateries have been forced out of business already, many more establishments are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

In response, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., is co-sponsoring the Restaurants Act, which calls for the creation of a $120 billion revitalization fund.

“It could be used for a wide range of expenses including payroll and benefits, food and utilities, rent, maintenance and supplies to keep restaurants afloat,” Menendez said Tuesday during a virtual news conference with the Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association and several members of the state's congressional delegation.

“As we are waiting for that safe day when we can all dine in our favorite restaurants again, to take our spouses out for a date, to take a break from cooking at home, we’ve got to make sure there are still restaurants to be there," he said. “Our restaurants are part of who we are and the pandemic has left many on life support.”

Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said the industry is in straits and thousands of jobs are on the line.

“Restaurants and hotels mostly hire from within their community. These are New Jersey jobs and New Jersey residents and they need help. We need assistance now," she said.

The $18 billion food service industry represents about 8% of all jobs New Jersey, or about 350,000 workers.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has already passed the legislation and Menendez said he’s hoping the Republican-led Senate will approve it by the end of the year.

The measure stipulates publicly-traded companies or chains with 20 or more locations would be excluded from the grant in order to ensure funding is directed to smaller, independently owned establishments that are in desperate need of money.

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