Murphy Takes Heat Even as NJ Edges Toward Cautious Reopening

State and county parks scheduled for limited access, but business leaders want governor to move faster and educators argue to keep schools closed
Credit: Thomas E. Franklin
A warning sign is posted on the gate to a playground in a New Jersey park advising that it’s closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Before his high-profile Restart and Recovery Commission even gets a chance to meet, Gov. Phil Murphy is starting to feel the heat from other folks with plenty of their own advice — solicited or not — about when and how to reopen the state.

Murphy yesterday took his first substantive steps toward loosening restrictions with his announcement that state and county parks could reopen this weekend, under certain conditions, particularly that social-distancing rules remain in place.

“For passive recreation including running, biking, fishing and boating, our state parks will be open once again,” Murphy said at his daily press briefing, laying out that they would still need to limit the number of people coming in and enforce distancing restrictions.

Pressure to phase in openings

The decision came after pressure from legislative and other leaders who have been pressing the governor over the last few days to start opening parks, businesses and other services in a phased-in approach.

In a letter sent Tuesday night, state Senate leaders of both parties implored Murphy’s new commission tasked with laying out a plan for reopening businesses to consider opening immediately what it called “low-risk” locations such as construction sites and car sales, as well as parks and beaches.

“As we are developing plans for a full scale reopening, we should consider how low-risk businesses and industries can safely reopen now,” read the letter signed by Senate President Steve Sweeney and Sens. Paul Sarlo, Teresa Ruiz, Declan O’Scanlon, Steve Oroho and Troy Singleton.

Business leader have been saying much the same, including the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, which released a survey of members that found 70% saying they were ready to reopen safely, albeit with some concerns that they will still suffer under the restrictions.

“The results of this survey put a finer detail on the true challenges that lie ahead, even with a soft opening at 50% capacity, as we work toward a recovery and reinvention framework for New Jersey’s economy,” said Michele Siekerka, NJBIA’s president.

But at the same time, others have called for the governor to remain cautious, especially around schools that have been closed for remote instruction for more than a month.

Educators: Keep schools closed

School leaders from many of the main education groups exercised some public pressure of their own this week, releasing a letter to the governor urging him not to reopen before the end of the school year. Murphy has said he would make that decision by May 15 and indicated yesterday that it could well be sooner.

“Reopening schools presents serious challenges that are far more complex than even those involved in closing schools and moving to online instruction,” read a letter delivered on Monday from a group led by the New Jersey Education Association and the New Jersey School Boards Association.

“Above all else, parents, students and school staff must be assured that health will not be compromised when schools reopen,” the letter continued. “The current data do not indicate that we can provide such assurance if schools reopen in the spring.”

Murphy yesterday did not let up on his mantra of the past two months, saying in his daily press briefing that the restrictions have worked but any re-entry will depend on continued progress in COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations.

On Monday, he released a broad roadmap that would require steady progress in public health, including the number of COVID-19 cases and testing capacity, before opening up businesses and other functions.

“The only way we can get New Jersey on the road back is if we all continue our social distancing in the coming weeks to really bend this curve down,” he said yesterday. “It is clearly heading in the right direction.”

And in the face of the pressure, Murphy took a defiant tone. “With all due respect to all the pressure that’s been out there, we frankly do not care; we make this call based on data, science and facts,” he said.

“Our goal has been simple and clear, and that is to slow this spread and decrease the rate of infection in the absence of a vaccine or proven therapeutics,” Murphy continued. “This means we’ve had to make hard choices, but these choices I know have saved lives.

“I am the one who bears the burden of making these decisions, and there is no amount of incoming (criticism) I won’t take to save the life of one child, one mother, one father, one grandparent or one neighbor.”