Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correctly state that the public health emergency is over.
COVID-19 cases are down significantly, vaccination coverage is expanding, and New Jersey’s public health emergency is now officially over.
But the pandemic is not over yet, state officials insisted Monday, and New Jersey’s formal COVID-19 state of emergency remains in place, with no immediate sunset in sight.
“This is not going to be like VE Day or VJ Day (at the end of World War II) where you declare that today the war is over. I think it will be more of a continued winding down,” said Dr. Edward Lifshitz, who runs the Department of Health’s Communicable Disease Service, when asked about the pandemic’s end in general during a media briefing Monday.
“I would not want to declare victory and say, ‘mission accomplished’ at this point, but we are certainly headed in the right direction,” Lifshitz said.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order on March 9, 2020, that initiated the public health emergency and the broader state of emergency, a status frequently issued for storms or other natural disasters. The order gives the state broad powers to call up the National Guard, waive existing rules and authorize new ones, evacuate residents and even take control of property if need be.
Last week, Murphy signed a bill — rushed through the Legislature with almost no debate — that would end the public health emergency; the governor had been renewing it monthly ever since March 2020 as required by the law that gives governors the ability to declare public health emergencies. The new law signed last week also phases out more than 100 other executive orders tied to the public health emergency and allows a dozen more to expire later in the year.
But according to Murphy’s office, the legislation didn’t impact the broader state of emergency, which remains in effect until it is lifted by a separate order from Murphy. This means that several pandemic-related orders — including a moratorium on evictions and a task force created to oversee federal COVID-19 funds — could continue beyond the summer, Murphy’s press secretary Alyana Alfaro said, because they are tied to the state of emergency itself, not the public health emergency set to end in two and a half months.
Utility shut-off moratorium
On Monday, Murphy was pressed by reporters to detail his recent decision to provide a “grace period” on utility shut-offs until December, and how that squared with the legislation he signed to wind down the public health emergency. Advocates have pushed the administration to retain protections included in emergency orders related to housing, power, heat and other critical services.
Murphy said that while the impact of the virus is less noticeable today, many families are still reeling economically and need time to work with their utility providers on a payment plan. But the decline in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths doesn’t mean the crisis is over, he said.
“I would measure (the pandemic’s end) as a non-medical matter, in the level of normalcy in our lives,” Murphy said, listing things like full-time in-person school without masks and the reopening of all state offices as potential metrics.
While New Jersey’s schools, state offices and private businesses have largely been allowed to reopen in recent months, some restrictions remain, like mask mandates for students, educators and staff and, in some cases, government employees. Other operations, like day programs for adults with special needs, have been awaiting additional guidance before they can welcome clients again, some of which was issued Monday.
New Jersey has made significant strides against the coronavirus, which has been diagnosed in more than 1 million residents — including more than 26,000 who have died — since March 2020. New cases and hospitalizations are close to 1/20th of what they were at their respective peaks. Nearly 4.6 million residents have now been vaccinated against COVID-19, a rate Murphy said is among the best in the nation.
While the pace of vaccination has been lagging recently, Murphy said Monday that he is now more confident that New Jersey would reach his goal of immunizing 4.7 million eligible adults by the end of June. But that doesn’t mean the work is done, he said, and that number will grow as more young people get shots. COVID-19 vaccines recently have been approved for children as young as 12 years, and trials are now underway with those as young as age 5.
“That (4.7 million) was our goal, but that’s not the endpoint. We will stay at it,” Murphy said Monday.