TRENTON — Taking "a big step forward in our restart and recovery," Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday announced that non-essential retailers would be allowed to open their doors to customers starting June 15.

That's the same day that bars and restaurants will be allowed to serve patrons at outdoor tables.

Murphy provided no further guidance on when indoor dining would be allowed or when other services such as gyms would be allowed to resume. The order does not apply to enclosed shopping malls, which will remain closed except for the stores that have entrances to the parking lot or streets.

The opening day — long-awaited by merchants who have been shut since the beginning of April — comes with a list of rules that have applied to essential retailers like grocery stores.

Capacity inside shops will be limited to 50%.

Customers and employees will have to wear face coverings.

Stores must provide special hours for seniors and at-risk customers.

Shops have to erect barriers at checkout to separate cashiers and customers.

Local governments are not allowed to impose further restrictions, Murphy said.

Last month, Murphy signed an order allowing non-essential retailers to provide curbside pick-up service. Many businesses and Republican lawmakers have been clamoring for the state to allow shops to reopen sooner. A few have been slapped with misdemeanor charges and court orders for defying the orders.

Murpy has been gradually lifting and easing restrictions almost on a daily basis since COVID-19 hospitalizations reached the peak in mid April, giving the green light to barbershops and salons on open June 27, expanding childcare services to all, and allowing in-person graduation ceremonies next month.

Murphy credited the public for adopting social distancing and wearing face coverings.

"But we still have work to do," he cautioned. "Generally, we are seeing the numbers we are needing to see. We have slowed this virus."

COVID-19 hospitalizations dropped to 1,982 Wednesday night, weeks after reaching a high of more than 8,000. Hospitals in North and Central Jersey reported no new coronavirus patients Wednesday while South Jersey hospitals reported 33 admissions.

Deaths in the state since the beginning of March have reached 11,970, half of them attributed to nursing homes.

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Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.