New Jersey is “open for business” on Halloween and will likely remain that way through the upcoming holiday season, Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday, assuming people use “common sense” about protecting their families from COVID-19.

“The key will be how people behave when they are inside,” Murphy said at his regular pandemic briefing. The danger of contracting COVID-19 “won’t be going door-to-door, trick-or-treating,” he said. “It will be the party in somebody’s basement. Or the dinner table.”

Nearly 1.2 million New Jerseyans have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the pandemic struck the state in March 2020, but the number of new cases detected daily has been generally trending downward for months and dropped 14% between Sunday and Monday, according to NJ Spotlight News’ ongoing analysis of state data. By the end of September, COVID-19-related hospitalizations had also started to fall; the rate of viral spread, known as RT and a key indicator of how fast the virus moves in the community at large, has been slowing since July.

Despite those trends, Murphy noted that as weather cools, people will be spending more time indoors, increasing the likelihood for infection. Plus, the highly transmissible delta variant remains the dominant coronavirus strain in New Jersey. The string of religious and cultural holidays that stretch from late October through New Year’s, drawing families and friends tighter to celebrate, increases the risk of viral spread, he said.

But the governor didn’t pause when asked how families should approach the upcoming holiday season. “We were open for business on Halloween last year and we will be open for business this Halloween. I just ask everybody to be safe and smart and do the right thing,” Murphy said, noting that the relatively widespread use of COVID-19 vaccines also makes this year a safer prospect.

Last year at this time, the daily COVID-19 case count was nearly 75% lower than the 1,111 new diagnoses reported by the state Monday. But that case count was beginning to spike wildly, eventually soaring to a peak of nearly 7,000 new cases in mid-January, state data shows. Hospitalizations, also slightly lower at this point in 2020, were also on their way up; almost 4,000 beds would be occupied by COVID-19 patients before the year ended.

State officials at the time blamed pandemic fatigue — lapses in mask-wearing, social distancing and remaining isolated — and, armed with predictive models, warned New Jerseyans to exercise caution over the holiday season. Many communities canceled traditional Halloween events and house parties last year; trick-or-treating, where permitted, was modified to ensure costumes included masks, and candy was distributed in single packs, not from a communal bowl. At Thanksgiving, families were warned to avoid large gatherings, hugs and shouting or singing, activities that can easily spread an airborne virus.

Positive signs

This year in New Jersey, the COVID-19 metrics are trending in a more positive direction. But while a growing number of people are already booking holiday plans, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief pandemic adviser, warned Americans to think carefully about group gatherings in the weeks and months to come. If inside, use a fan or open windows to keep the air moving, he said Sunday, and stay outdoors if possible.

Murphy conceded he was “a little bit mystified” by this guidance when asked about it Monday. “We’re going to be draconian (with public health measures) if we think we need to be draconian,” he said. “We lose credibility if we are seen to be draconian when it completely defies common sense. And I hope we never cross this line.”

If friends and family are all vaccinated, Murphy suggested they could safely gather as a group — and extra ventilation and mask-wearing could further reduce the risk of infection. Nearly 5.9 million New Jerseyans are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, or more than 75% of those currently eligible. More than 84% of eligible residents have had at least one dose, he said.

Murphy and state health commissioner Judy Persichilli also highlighted federal guidance for pregnant women to get vaccinated; Persichilli noted pregnant women with COVID-19 symptoms are twice as likely to find themselves in intensive care on a ventilator — and 70% more likely to die of the disease — as those who aren’t pregnant. They also risk stillbirth, pre-term birth and other complications, she said.

However, only 31% of those currently pregnant have been vaccinated, according to federal data, but the protection varies significantly by racial group. Nearly 46% of pregnant Asians have had their shots, she said, while just 25% of Blacks who are pregnant have been inoculated.

“COVID-19 vaccination is recommended for all individuals 12 years and older,” Persichilli said, including those who are pregnant, breastfeeding or looking to conceive now or in the future. “There is no evidence suggesting that fertility problems are a side effect of any COVID-19 vaccine.”

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