After the federal government announced significantly relaxed national mask mandates for people vaccinated against COVID-19, Gov. Phil Murphy said New Jersey will now permit everyone to go barefaced when outside, regardless of crowd size, social distance or immunization status.
But Murphy insisted that all in New Jersey continue to wear masks when inside, even if they are fully vaccinated. While that conflicts with the latest recommendation from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Murphy said it is necessary to protect unvaccinated individuals from potential infection and to spare retail employees from mask-enforcement duties.
“While we have made tremendous progress, we aren’t out of the woods yet,” Murphy said at his pandemic news conference Monday. “The majority of New Jerseyans are still unvaccinated and we’re not checking anyone’s vaccine status at the door when you go to the supermarket or the hardware store.”
“I don’t know how we can expect workers to be able to tell who is vaccinated from who isn’t,” he continued. “And it is unfair to put the burden on business owners and frontline employees to police every patron.”
Approaching 4M vaccinations
More than 3.8 million New Jerseyans are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, which has infected at least 1 million people, including nearly 26,000 who have died as a result. The state has set an initial goal of immunizing 4.7 million people by July and, while demand for the shots initially far exceeded supply, the pace of administering the vaccines has declined significantly in recent weeks.
Late last week the CDC recommended that people who are fully immunized could go without masks both inside and out, regardless of crowds or the vaccine status of others, given the strong protection offered by the COVID-19 vaccines. But the agency stressed that local and state governments still had the ultimate say in these policies and on Friday Murphy said state health officials would review the guidance before making any changes.
In the days that followed, Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania all pledged to soon embrace the CDC recommendations. But Murphy announced on Monday that while there was still a “very high degree of cooperation and engagement” with neighboring states, New Jersey was not yet ready to take that step.
“I don’t want to get burned. I don’t want to go back,” said Murphy, a first-term Democrat now seeking re-election, underscoring his hesitancy to relax restrictions that might need to be re-instated later. “A little bit more time on the clock is a big help for us.”
New Jersey epidemiologist Dr. Christina Tan also said Monday that while she couldn’t speak for the CDC’s decision, lifting restrictions on those who have been vaccinated also can serve as an incentive to others to get immunized. “We want to be able to emphasize that these are the things you can resume once you get vaccinated. That’s really the carrot,” she said.
Murphy’s mask-mandate changes come as New Jersey prepares to enter a new phase of re-opening Wednesday, when there will no longer be limits on the size of outdoor gatherings; indoor events will double in capacity; and restaurants can seat more tables. On Monday he took additional steps, lifting the quarantine requirements for out-of-state travelers, announcing that in-person court trials would resume next month and insisting that remote-learning would no longer be available when kids return to school next fall.
In addition, Murphy said the current public health emergency — which has now stretched 15 months after he extended it Friday for another 30 days — would end for good in a month under an agreement he forged with legislative leadership. Murphy said Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) have worked with him to create legislation that would enable some of the state’s emergency powers, like the flexibility it allows hospital capacity, to continue while the overall order would lapse.
The flexibility provided by the emergency order is “really how we’ve been running our pandemic response from the beginning until hopefully an end at some point soon,” state health commissioner Judy Persichilli said Monday.
Lawmakers in both parties have grown frustrated with the ongoing emergency requirements, which expand the reach of an already powerful governor. At a hearing of the Assembly budget committee Monday, Republicans — who have criticized Murphy for restrictions they said are killing state businesses — also questioned why the governor was not adopting the CDC mask guidance when he has previously sought to align state policy with the federal recommendations.
“Instead of following the science here in New Jersey, we have a governor who continues to restrict personal freedoms to cater to the irrational fears of a timid liberal constituency,” added Sen. Michael Testa (R-Cape May) in a press release later Monday. All members of the state Assembly and Senate are also up for re-election this year.
Asked about this GOP criticism, Murphy said it is easy “to be on the third deck of the cheap seats” picking apart the decisions his administration makes. “The politics of this are of zero interest to me,” he said. “Keeping people alive is our obsession.”