RARITAN TWP, NJ - Raritan Township will hold a public hearing on Oct. 20 to allow restaurants and bars to continue to offer outdoor seating throughout the winter to help them cope with a state of emergency declared by Gov. Phil Murphy due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The governor shut down restaurants - and many other businesses in the state - in early March to try to contain the spread of the highly contagious virus that currently has no cure.

In June, restaurants and bars were allowed to open with outdoor seating, which caused municipalities such as Raritan Township to temporarily revise zoning laws to allow for it.

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In September, Murphy allowed restaurants and bars to open with indoor seating, but at 25 percent capacity. That caused Raritan Township to revisit the zoning changes.

Raritan Township Committee members discussed making the outdoor seating ordinance permanent at a meeting over the summer. The measure was discouraged by the township attorney, as it might conflict with other zoning laws.

Instead, he recommended extending the temporary provision until April 2021.

At the last meeting, the committee introduced an ordinance outlining the extension.

The revised ordinance allows for temporary outdoor lighting as long as it doesn't spill into neighboring properties or create a safety hazard as determined by the zoning officer. It also allows for outdoor heaters, gas fireplaces and chimineas, although it bans open fire pits.

Restaurant owners must apply for a zoning permit to provide outdoor seating and receive approval from the zoning officer.

According to the U.S. Census, restaurants and hotels account for nearly $22 million worth of revenue in the township.