Text: Tim Nostrand
Video report: Brenda Flanagan, NJTV News
Amid a spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy and other state officials on Monday imposed a series of mandatory closures and business regulations, all designed to limit the close interactions between people that facilitate the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The new rules, which went into effect as of 8 p.m. Monday night, limit crowds for recreational and social gatherings to 50 people, including in private residences. Restaurants and bars are to serve only takeout and delivery customers, and movie theaters, gyms and casinos were to suspend operations as of that time.
Murphy also “strongly discouraged” all nonessential and nonemergency travel in New Jersey between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m., noting that he was not imposing a strict curfew, but could still do so.
In addition, Murphy ordered that all nonessential retail, recreation and entertainment businesses must shut down between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. and take steps to limit the number of customers to 50 people at any one time.
The governor cited supermarkets and pharmacies as examples of business that are deemed essential.
At the same time, Murphy ordered all public and private schools in the state to close starting Wednesday, a move that he had earlier signaled was imminent. Officials said Monday that 90% of schools had already been shut down by local officials and had plans for remote learning in place. Murphy’s order includes colleges and universities in New Jersey, which also had in the main announced their own temporary closures.
Appeals for civic responsibility
At the press briefing, which has become a daily fixture for the governor and senior members of his administration, Murphy also sought to address residents who are deeply distressed about the outbreak and those who dismiss the steps he announced as an overreaction.
While acknowledging that there would be negative impacts, he maintained the social distancing inherent in the order was an essential component of flattening the curve of cases so that the state’s health care system is not overwhelmed. He appealed to residents’ sense of civic responsibility, saying everybody has a role to play in containing the virus. “As I’ve said before, we are all in this together. We all have our jobs to do — beginning with, including yours truly,” he said. “We take this seriously. We don’t panic, but we realize it’s no longer time for business as usual.
“And we do both the little things and the big things,” he added. “Assuming we do all that, I can say unequivocally we emerge from this stronger, as one New Jersey family, than ever before.”
Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said that the state has now recorded 178 confirmed cases, a jump of 80 in one day. The cases involve people ranging in age from 93 to a 5-year-old, who is now the state’s youngest victim of an infection that hits senior citizens hardest. Persichilli said the child is not hospitalized.
There are cases in 14 counties
Cases of COVID-19 infection now stretch across 14 of New Jersey’s 21 counties, with the most in Bergen County; it has 61 presumptively positive test results, including 32 new cases.
At the press conference, Murphy also said that he was mobilizing National Guard units in the state, and officials said these would be available to fill “capability gaps” in health care or other essential services should they arise.
Officials also announced that the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission will close all facilities until March 30, and motorists will get a two-month extension on deadlines.
In addition, New Jersey’s 65,000 state employees will start working from home as of Wednesday.
Officials also said that the state is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to enhance the state’s ability to test for the virus, and that two drive-thru testing sites were being opened in the state — one at Bergen County Community College, the other at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Monmouth County. New Jersey is one of 12 states where the federal government will be offering coronavirus testing, Murphy said.
During her part of the briefing, Persichilli offered an accounting of the state’s care capabilities. Hospitals in New Jersey have 700 negative-pressure isolation rooms, nearly 200 intensive-care beds, and 23,000 acute-care beds. She said officials have talked with their counterparts at four hospitals in the state where wings had been closed in recent years due to lack of consistent use, to discuss the possibility of reopening them, which could add another 200 negative-pressure beds.
Working with New York and Connecticut
In announcing the steps in New Jersey, Murphy noted that his counterparts in New York and Connecticut were following suit, and that the restrictions were being implemented across the New York Metropolitan area. The move signals a recognition that COVID-19 does not respect geographic boundaries and were taken amid a “lack of federal direction and nationwide standards,” according to a press release announcing the joint effort.
At the news conference, Murphy was asked about the penalty for failing to comply with the new directives. Both he and State Police Superintendent Patrick Callahan said that authorities would use discretion, to a degree.
“We won’t look kindly upon big, private house parties,” Murphy said.
Later, officials reported that, according to state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, violations of the executive order can be enforced as disorderly persons offenses and residents should assume that they will be enforced.
Marissa Ruggiero of Springfield, who has a fifth-grade daughter in the schools there, approved Murphy’s actions.
“I think it’s a great idea,” she said. “We’ve been pushing for the schools to be closed last week. I haven’t sent my daughter to school since last week. So I’m happy we’re finally taking things seriously.”
“It’s a public health crisis, a pandemic,” Ruggiero said. “We really need to flatten the curve. We have to minimize exposure as much as possible. I’m concerned about everybody else. I’m concerned about my parents, who are over the age of 60. They’re an at-risk population.”
Added steps in hard-hit Bergen County
Also Monday, Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco announced that he was ordering the closure of his county’s iconic malls and other businesses. The order also seeks to shutter most offices within the county, with exceptions that include banks and law firms. It also bans gatherings of more than four people in a public place, other than family members.
Mall restaurants remain open for takeout or delivery orders only.
Big-box stores like Costco would be asked to adhere to rules similar to the county’s infamous blue laws that restrict Sunday sales, allowing sales of food but not televisions and other nonessential items.
Bergen County government remains open under the order, but not to the public. County parks remain open, but only for passive use, and golf courses are open only to those who walk the course.
Tedesco said that, with state plans to open a drive-thru virus-testing site later in the week at Bergen County Community College, he is looking for retirees and others to volunteer to help out at the facility.