TRENTON — Gov. Phil Murphy is slowly lifting restrictions on businesses, allowing non-essential retailers to provide curbside service and restarting non-essential construction work beginning Monday, May 18.

Murphy also announced that drive-thru and drive-in events would be permitted starting immediately, paving the way for drive-in movie theaters to open for business and drive-thru graduation ceremonies to be held.

Still out of bounds are in-person gatherings of any kind, sit-in dining and hands-on services such as barber shops and beauty parlors.

Murphy said his administration has been discussing with hospitals and doctors about restarting elective procedures, a plan for which could be released later this week.

Non-essential businesses have been closed since March 21. Non-essential construction was paused on April 8. Murphy has extended the public health emergency for the third month, into at least the first week of June.

Murphy has been facing growing pressure to lift economic restrictions as the number of hospitalizations has trended downward since the peak on April 15. Since then, new hospitalizations have fallen by two thirds and total hospitalizations have been halved, which health officials attribute to the state's aggressive social distancing measures.

Murphy on Wednesday said the lifted restrictions are part of a "careful process of restarting our economy and getting our state back."

"While we have made enormous progress we are still not in the end zone," he added, pointing out that New Jersey leads the nation in new COVID-19 deaths and cases.

Murphy said further loosening of restrictions would be "incremental."

"We are moving slowly and deliberately because any mistake risks further outbreaks. When public health determines it is safe to remove a restriction, we will remove it — I promise you," he said.

Murphy said the customers are still not allowed inside non-essential retailers; they will have to place orders in advance.

Vehicles at drive-in or drive-thru events will have to maintain separation of 6 feet or more or else windows and convertible tops will have to be closed unless a passenger's safety is at risk.

At construction sites, workers will have to remain masked, visitors should be barred and break hours should be staggered to encourage distancing among workers, Murphy said.

Murphy has empaneled two separate committees of business leaders, health officials and clergy to chart out plans for reopening commerce and houses of worship.

Republican lawmakers, who were largely supportive — or at least silent — during the first weeks of the state's emergency response have recently called into question the length of Murphy's emergency orders. Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick this week called for public hearings where experts could be asked about safe ways to restart the economy.

“There should not be a debate in the Governor’s Office and then the governor comes out and announces simply, ‘This is how we’re going to proceed.’ Maybe that might be true for a week or two but not three or four months," Bramnick said Tuesday. "This is a time the Legislature must get involved and must start examining these questions publicly.”

Murphy's mantra has been that "public health determines economic health and data determines dates." On Tuesday, he announced an ambitious plan to boost contact tracing and testing as a way to let more people out of their homes.

“More testing means more people will know their health status and that means more peace of mind," he said Tuesday. "And more testing creates more data, and more data allow us to take more steps forward."

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.