NJ Reopens Schools, Restaurants, Gyms and More — but What’s Next?

Gov. Phil Murphy has a three-stage plan. Exactly where New Jersey is now is not so clear
Credit: (Michael Mancuso, NJ.com)
File photo: Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli

With the reopening of indoor dining, fitness centers and schools – albeit with limited capacity and new safety measures – New Jersey is making significant strides towards restoring the state’s economy, which has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Restaurant and gym owners have welcomed the developments, after six months of little if any revenue, and some educators and families are eager to embrace the new school year, while others are worried it will lead COVID-19 to spread. Parks, beaches and golf courses have welcomed visitors since late May and out-door dining was permitted starting in mid-June, but the state’s economy continued to suffer.

But where exactly New Jersey stands in Gov. Phil Murphy’s three-stage plan to reopen businesses remains somewhat of a mystery.  The governor has stressed the need for a flexible, phased-in approach, with twin mantras of “data determines dates” and “public health creates economic health.” His policy decisions have been driven by statistical trends, Murphy says, not specific metrics, and he has repeatedly warned that an uptick in viral activity could lead officials to reverse course.

“We’ve experienced a lot together over these past six months. And we still have a long road to travel,” Murphy said at a media briefing Friday. “The limits we have placed on capacities, and the public health protocols we have put in place are not kind suggestions — they are mandated. We will not tolerate any violations, and we will not be afraid to come down hard and make an example of those who think the rules don’t apply to them.”

Moving to Stage 3, not so simple

When announcing the latest reopenings on Aug. 31, Murphy suggested the state would be moving “into Stage 3” of the plan — which allows for expanded indoor dining and hair salon services, as well as reopening bars — and asked Deputy Chief Counsel Parimal Garg to confirm his answer. Garg suggested it wasn’t that simple.

“We’ve allowed a number of Stage 3 activities,” Garg said, including indoor dining, gyms, movie theatres and schools, but have not technically entered this new phase of the plan.  “So when we make a formal declaration of Stage 3 that will trigger some other consequences, which we haven’t done yet.”

Murphy’s press secretary Alyana Alfaro said department and agency leaders are working with health experts to examine various guidance documents “to see if (other) Stage 3 activities under their jurisdiction can safely resume.” If various statistics “continue to trend in the right direction, more Stage 3 activities are expected to be permitted in the coming weeks.”

On the eve of the Memorial Day weekend, Murphy stressed additional steps depend on public compliance. “There is nothing more I would like to do than to eventually expand restaurant capacities. But I cannot and will not be able to do that if this weekend, and the weeks to follow, if I see a slew of restaurant owners and managers flagrantly violating the rules that are in place,” he said Friday. “So, let’s work together for a safe return of indoor dining, and we can ensure there will be better days ahead.”

Alfaro referred to reopening details on the state’s COVID-19 website, which lists when each activity was permitted to restart and links to the requisite safety precautions. “New Jersey will enter new stages based on data that demonstrates improvements in public health and the capacity to safeguard the public. The restart will be phased-in within each stage, rather than opening all businesses and activities at once within a stage,” it notes.

NJ residents get the credit

Regardless of where New Jersey is in the reopening process, Murphy credited residents for enabling the state to ease restrictions. He also warned the novel coronavirus remained a real threat – especially as people become more active and children return to class, even in small groups. Reports show COVID-19 cases have increased in some states that already permitted bars and restaurants to reopen, including Pennsylvania.

“In the final analysis, we are able to take all these steps today because of the hard work millions of you have done to keep pushing down our positivity rate and our rate of transmission, and all the other health metrics we follow, to where we are comfortable and confident in taking them,” Murphy said last week.

“Because we are doing so does not mean, by any stretch, that we can let up on our vigilance even one bit. We know this is a virus of opportunity,” he added. “So, let’s not give it any unforced opportunities.”

State Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli has also underscored the role of individual responsibility in preventing the spread of the disease — by wearing masks, maintaining distance, washing hands and staying home when sick. These protocols remain important as New Jersey continues to reopen, she said.

Of the 746 summer camps that hosted children, only four reported outbreaks, infecting just one camper and four staff members, Persichilli said. “That’s an amazing testament to the non-pharmaceutical interventions that were practiced in our camps,” she said last week. “What we call NPIs… work.”

Persichilli reiterated this message in advance of the recent holiday. “Please take precautions while celebrating,” she said Friday. “The cost of attending a barbeque or having a drink with friends should not be a deadly virus.”

Since the first the first diagnosis here in March, New Jersey had recorded nearly 193,000 cases of COVID-19 by the end of last week, including more than 14,200 who had died as a result. Almost 3 million residents have been tested for the virus.

The impact of the coronavirus has slackened significantly since its peak in mid-April, when 8,000-plus patients were hospitalized with COVID-19, more than a third of them in critical care units where most relied on ventilators to breathe. Just over 500 COVID patients remained in the hospital last week, with less than 20% in intensive care and only three dozen on ventilators. 

Beginning to ease restrictions

Murphy outlined his three-stage plan to reopen businesses and public spaces in May, when the state remained under “maximum restrictions.” Soon after, state officials began to permit Stage 1 activities, like non-essential construction, curbside pick-up and public access to many parks and beaches. Hospitals were allowed to resume elective surgeries — a significant source of revenue — a few weeks later.

The plan is shaped in part by a six-point strategy Murphy introduced in late April, which set general goals for the reopening process, like expanding COVID-19 public testing capacity and recruiting and training up to 7,000 people to assist local health departments with contact tracing, to track down infections and help contain the spread of the virus. Testing has been expanded significantly, but efforts to establish a robust contact tracing corps have proved more challenging.

On June 15 New Jersey officially entered Stage 2, allowing for outdoor dining and non-essential retail stores to reopen. Hair salons and malls would be allowed to welcome visitors the following week, all with new precautions.

As July 4th approached, Murphy announced casinos and racetracks could begin to welcome guests over the holiday weekend and suggested the state was now “at the middle of Stage 2.” If residents “continue to be smart” the state could soon set a date to enter the third and final reopening stage, he added.

“Again, let’s use common sense for the common good. Only a successful Stage 2 can get us to Stage 3. Social distancing will continue to be the watchwords of the day,” Murphy said at the time. High-risk individuals “will still be asked to take extra precautions and to stay at home whenever possible,” he added.

But plans to allow restaurants to reopen indoor dining for the July 4th holiday were rescinded just days before they took effect after Murphy grew concerned about reports of maskless revelers at crowded outdoor venues along the Jersey Shore. Industry representatives criticized the move, but the governor insisted that entering a new stage “does not mean we can flick a switch.” 

Details not forthcoming

Reporters have repeatedly pressed Murphy’s team for more detail on specific data points or metrics they want to the state to meet in order to trigger additional policy changes.  The six-point strategy provided some benchmarks – like a two-week decline in new case numbers and doubling testing capacity – which have been met; Others, like massively increasing the number of contact tracers, appear to be ongoing. (The state has hired around 900 so far, or nearly 20 tracers per 100,000 population, surpassing an initial goal and on its way to having 30/100,000.)

“With schools, gyms restaurants and other reopenings occurring, having a strong network of contact tracers is more important than ever to contain the spread of COVID-19,” Persichilli said Friday. But less than half of those diagnosed agree to share details of who they might have infected, she said, urging people to participate in the process. The success “depends on everyone’s participation,” she said.

While some states have created detailed statistical targets for reopening individual activities, Murphy has taken a more flexible approach. His team looks at trends in several key categories — including the number of new cases, COVID hospitalizations, spot positivity rate or percentage of positive tests and the rate of transmission, or RT, which measures how quickly the virus is spreading – and bases decisions on the direction these are heading.

“We want to be more safe than sorry and so I can’t hang my hat on one number or a particular benchmark, other than the fact that we’ve made (declines in new cases, hospitalizations and other rates,) when you look at you’re 70% to 80% of peaks, you have confidence you can move forward,” Murphy said in June, when asked about his reopening process.

Princeton University President Dr. Shirley Tilghman, who cochairs the governor’s Restart and Recovery Commission with Merck Chairman and CEO Ken Frazier, also endorsed this approach when the two leaders joined Murphy’s media briefing last week. The commission advises the governor’s team on the reopening process, with input from nine subcommittees comprising of industry leaders.

“I don’t think there’s a single metric that is going to tell us when it is going to be safe to begin to reopen more generally. I think all of us have been watching what is happening not just in the rest of the country, but in the rest of the world,” Tilghman said, noting a recent uptick in New Zealand, which hadn’t had a COVID-19 case in months. “I think all of this is just a reminder to us that the virus is still here. It has not gone away.”