On Friday, New Jerseyans can abandon their face masks — even when inside — dine at regularly spaced restaurant tables, belly up to a bar for nothing more than a beverage and even take to the dance floor.
Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday that many of the state’s remaining COVID-19 restrictions would end in four days, just in time for the Memorial Day weekend, and the current gathering limits would be eliminated the following Friday. The declining impact of COVID-19 makes this possible, he said, but also noted that he predicted in December that things would likely return to more normalcy by this holiday.
“These steps are the clearest signs of our commitment to carefully and deliberately reopening our state after what has been a truly crushing 14-month period,” Murphy said at his regular pandemic news briefing. Other changes slated to take effect Friday include the lifting of the 6-foot social distancing requirement, which has been a particular burden to small restaurants, and requirements that patrons sit at a bar and order food with their drinks.
Murphy defended what could be viewed as a reversal of his previous policy, articulated at a news conference eight days ago, that all New Jerseyans should wear masks inside, regardless of vaccination status.
Murphy: Pressure not a factor
Federal authorities had relaxed mask guidelines several days earlier, and New York and Pennsylvania chose to allow immunized individuals to skip face coverings at all times. Since then, Murphy has faced growing pressure from lawmakers, business owners and residents in general who said they were confused or frustrated by the state’s policy. Murphy said Monday these did not influence his evolved position.
“If these past two weeks have pushed one more person to get vaccinated, or saved one extra person from hospitalization or death, then we are all better off,” Murphy said. Since then, immunization rates have continued to rise — more than 4 million people have been fully vaccinated here — and COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are declining, he noted.
But the public health data was only one of the factors influencing his decision to end the mask mandate, Murphy said Monday. He said state officials were surprised when the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its face-covering guidance — Murphy said he was expecting the agency to cut or reduce social-distancing restrictions instead — and his administration wanted to take time to review its options.
“When the CDC took all of us by surprise and updated its masking guidance 10 days ago, which also caused confusion across the country, we didn’t act in knee-jerk fashion,” he said. “I do not, for one minute, regret us taking these extra two weeks to ensure that the dramatic decreases we had been seeing in both cases and hospitalizations would continue,” he said.
New York, Pennsylvania
There is also the fact that New York and Pennsylvania had already ended their mask requirements. If New Jerseyans are traveling to those states to shop or dine, that’s not fair on businesses here, Murphy noted Monday. “That reality then gets put into play,” he said.
When Murphy outlined his intention last week to maintain the indoor mask requirement, one of the primary reasons was to keep retail workers and other frontline employees from having to enforce face-covering rules or determine who was vaccinated or not. He said that remained a concern now that masks will no longer be required but said the enforcement burden must now fall on individuals.
“We’re not going to put these workers in harm’s way,” Murphy said, or ask them to play “judge and jury” on mask rules. “So what we are very clearly asking folks is for personal responsibility,” he continued. “If you’re not vaccinated, first off get vaccinated, and in the meantime, do the right thing. Wear a mask and keep your distance.”
Health commissioner Judy Persichilli also encouraged frontline workers — whose jobs put them at higher risk for infection — who had not been vaccinated to get a COVID-19 shot as soon as possible. “That’s the best way they can protect themselves from the few individuals who won’t mask up,” she said.
Murphy stressed that retail establishments can still require masks if they prefer, and people can always wear them if it makes them more comfortable. “We will not tolerate anyone being demeaned or bullied for wanting to continue to mask up,” he said.
Masks still required at hospitals, MVC, schools
The state will require masks in some situations, Murphy noted. Those include hospitals and other health facilities, state offices that interact with public members in person, like the Motor Vehicle Commission, and child care centers, schools and summer camps for kids.
That sparked concerns for Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Passaic), who said youngsters should not have to wear masks at outdoor camps during the summer. She said she would introduce a bill to allow them to go free of face coverings.
Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) took offense at the timing of Murphy’s new policy, urging him to make the changes now, not in four days. “Why do we continue to play these games? After a full year of being told what to do, New Jerseyans deserve better. It’s time to rip the Band-Aid off and open everything up,” he said.