New Jersey is cracking down on violators of Gov. Phil Murphy’s stay-at-home order, as well as on price gouging and reported incidents of racial bias that have been prompted by the COVID-19 epidemic.
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said on Monday that police officers and county prosecutors would not tolerate people who ignore the ban on social gatherings and the statewide order to remain at home except for essential errands like food shopping, as officials attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
At Murphy’s daily news conference on the state’s effort to fight the epidemic, Grewal said there could be unspecified charges filed against people who violate the so-called lockdown order, and against those who attempt to profit from the crisis or accuse Asian people of spreading the virus.
Murphy: ‘damned unhappy’
Murphy said that although the vast majority of New Jerseyans are complying with the order to stay at home, a few are ignoring it, and risking a further spread of the disease. On Sunday, he said he was “really damned unhappy” about people violating the order.
As of 12 p.m. Monday, there were 2,844 reported infections in New Jersey, 935 more than on Sunday afternoon, Murphy said. Seven more people died in the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of COVID-19 fatalities to 27. Five men and two women, aged between 57 and 91, were the latest to die, said Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, at the news conference.
Murphy stressed repeatedly that the latest increase in infections had been expected because of an increase in testing, but warned that there will be a further rise in the number of cases.
In his Executive Order 107 issued on Saturday, Murphy banned gatherings of individuals such as parties and celebrations, ordered people to practice “social distancing” by keeping at least 6 feet away from each other, and directed all nonessential businesses to close, tightening a commercial shutdown that began last week.
The sweeping action, following similar measures in New York, California and Illinois, draws its legal authority from the executive order, Grewal said. “During this public health emergency, the governor has extensive authority to take bold action to protect the residents of this state against the spread of COVID-19.”
To that end, the AG’s office has set up a network of county prosecutors who are ready to advise police on how to charge violations of the executive order that established the lockdown, Grewal said. “The time for warnings is over and the time to ensure compliance by using all the tools available to us is here.”
This is your last warning
But he issued a “final warning” to any nonessential retail stores, bars or restaurants that remain open. “Your actions are against the law in New Jersey, and you will be held accountable,” he said.
The same applies to individuals who might be tempted to throw a party for their friends. “Stop — law enforcement officers will be forced to break that party up, and there will be criminal consequences,” Grewal said.
His office said violators could be charged with disorderly persons offenses; second-, third-, or fourth-degree indictable offenses, or other charges. A spokesman declined to give any examples of violations that had occurred, or how police would know whether someone had a permitted reason to be out of his or her house.
“It is a criminal offense to violate the governor’s orders related to the coronavirus pandemic,” the AG’s office said in a statement.
On price gouging, Grewal said the Department of Community Affairs had received some 1,400 complaints about coronavirus-related price gouging at about 900 retail establishments. State and county prosecutors have so far investigated about 350 cases and issued 160 cease-and-desist letters in response.
Manufacturers jack up prices
Some complaints have reported price hikes for epidemic-related items like surgical masks and hand sanitizer but it turned out that only a “small percentage” of the increases have been made by retailers, while most have come from the manufacturers, Grewal said.
He also pledged that law enforcement officers would be especially alert to reports of hate crimes against Asians amid reports that some have been victimized by people who hold them responsible for the epidemic that started in China. President Donald Trump has called the virus the “Chinese virus,” and has rejected claims that he is fanning the passions of hate groups by doing so.
In New Jersey, there have been “disturbing” reports of discrimination, harassment and even assault on people of East Asian descent, Grewal said. “We can’t let ignorance and fear of COVID-19 lead to stereotyping and prejudice,” he said. “COVID-19 is no excuse for intolerance or for hate. Even though there are a handful of incidents, that’s a handful too many.”
As Congress failed again on Monday to agree on a proposed $1.8 trillion rescue package to curb the virus and cushion its devastating effect on the economy, Murphy reissued a call to the federal government for $100 billion in funding to be split between New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania to fight the epidemic.
“Our ask is big, but I want to make sure that the president knows, and his team knows, that it’s big but it’s legitimate,” he said. “It envisages aggressive behavior across whole spectrum of channels available to us.”
And he warned that the ban on gatherings of people may stay in place during the major religious festivals of Passover and Easter if current conditions persist in April. “If we get to Passover, if we get to Holy Week, and we’re in a different place, I’ll be the happiest guy in New Jersey,” he said.