With COVID-19 Cases Up, Murphy Shuts Down Malls, as Schools Come Under Closure Order

The number of residents testing positive reaches 267, up 89 from previous day, with a total of three deaths
Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli and Gov. Phil Murphy at press briefing on state efforts to curb the coronavirus outbreak, March 17

Text: Tim Nostrand

Video report: Brenda Flanagan, NJTV News 

Gov.  Phil Murphy on Tuesday ordered a statewide shutdown of shopping malls and amusement centers, as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in New Jersey continued to rise, now standing at a total of 267, up 89 from the day before.

In addition, Rutgers University announced that it is suspending all in-person teaching, with the exception of clinical instruction, for the remainder of the school year, after earlier ordering a limited closure.

During his daily press briefing on the COVID-19 crisis and the state’s response to it, Murphy sought to prepare residents for a long haul — of continued social isolation and the prolonged closures of stores, offices and other elements of regular, day-to-day life.

“In many respects, this is day one of life in New Jersey under the measures we put in place yesterday to ensure social distancing and to help flatten the curve and slow the spread of coronavirus,” he said.

Preparing for home schooling and online learning

He also warned that schools — which will be under a formal closure order Wednesday — could be shut down for an extended time, and not just two weeks as many districts had initially said.

“I’m assuming we are in a suspension mode here longer than not,” Murphy said.

Getting the message

In a statement punctuated frequently with expressions of gratitude for various groups for their efforts during the crisis, ranging from health care workers to truckers and even journalists, Murphy also hit again on a repeat theme: A necessary period of tough restrictions was the way to get past the viral outbreak with as few lives lost as possible.

“The steps we’re taking may lead to short-term pain for 9 million of us, living a different sort of lifestyle,” he said. “It is for good reason.”

He also said that there was evidence more residents were getting the message that it was important to say home, the day after he had issued a sweeping statewide order that, among other steps, limited crowds for recreational and social gatherings to 50 people, closed movie theaters, gyms and casinos and “strongly discouraged” all nonessential and nonemergency travel between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m.

“I want to thank everyone who has taken to heart the need to stay in after 8 p.m. We need all New Jerseyans to follow your lead,” he said before offering up suggestions for ways to pass time. “Binge-watch something. Play a game with your family. Call family members or neighbors to make sure they’re doing OK, particularly the elderly among us. But please just stay in after 8 p.m.”

Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, a constant presence at the daily briefings, offered a breakdown of the new cases. Bergen County continues to lead, with 23 new positive tests, and there were 11 in Essex County. The cases are now spread more widely in the state with Gloucester County in South Jersey now registering its first two positive results.

Of the 267 people now diagnosed with COVID-19, 55% have been hospitalized; their ages range from 5 to 93, and the median case is a 52-year-old.

In addition, Persichilli referenced Murphy’s announcement from late Monday that a third resident had died — a Bergen County resident in their 90s who had been undergoing treatment at Hackensack University Medical Center.

In imposing the shutdown of indoor malls, as well as amusement parks and amusement centers, Murphy noted that, as under his earlier order restricting restaurants and bars, mall restaurants with separate entrances can remain open to provide takeout and delivery service.

In Bergen County on Monday, County Executive Jim Tedesco had imposed his own order for malls to close, and on Tuesday he extended the deadline for that step until Saturday.

But in his statement, Murphy said that Trenton was the final authority, and that where statewide and local directives vary, they will be reviewed and allowed to stand if they align.

“There’s no doubting everyone’s heart is in the right place,” he said. “But we have to do things in a coordinated fashion and at the end of the day, where necessary, we will override local or county actions to make sure we are consistent in our approach.”

Also on hand for the press update was Robert Asaro-Angelo, Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner. He reported a 12-fold spike in recent unemployment claims — including 15,000 Monday alone, a number sufficient to crash the department’s website.

Both the commissioner and the governor offered assurances that steps taken in Trenton and Washington would soften the blow for workers and their bosses, in terms of paid sick and family leave in New Jersey, and pending legislation in Congress that would reimburse nearly all employers in the state all the costs they incur for continuing to pay idled workers.

Murphy also encouraged banks to defer loan payments and make credit more readily available. He also pressed for flexibility on mortgage payments.

Adapting to home schooling

Meanwhile, with nearly all school districts in the state already closed, parents and their children were adapting Tuesday to the new reality of at-home, remote learning, a day before Murphy’s order officially kicked in. Officials reported that nearly all the districts in the state had closed already, after filing plans for how they would conduct distance learning with the state.

In Newark, following the district’s coronavirus contingency plan, parents like Dawn Haynes picked up bag lunches and breakfast for kids at Quitman Elementary. More than two-thirds of the district’s 38,000 students rely on school for meals, and daily food distribution makes sure everyone eats.

But it’s the remote learning component that changed routines for Haynes’s three daughters. The experience was eye-opening.

“Yesterday was my first time in the home-school mind frame, and it was awesome,” she said. “It gave me time to spend with them. And I got to see what their teachers deal with, how short their attention span actually is.”

The district provided a Chromebook and teachers walked the girls through how to use it.

At the same time, though, Becky Hall’s second-grader is among the district’s 10,000 students with no internet access.

“A lot of the kids here don’t have computers at home and laptops and stuff, so online learning for even them is hard,” she said.

“But it’s still learning,” she added. “They’re got to pick books. They’ve got little projects in the packet — math, science and reading.”

The district sent home two weeks’ worth of paper homework, designed to keep kids up to speed and focused on learning.

Newark Schools Superintendent Roger León said the district is making adjustments as it goes along.

“We are monitoring and adjusting very well to our realities today,” he said. “All are clear that this is not a vacation. And the work the teachers would normally do — and the supervision of that work — all occurs virtually.”

León said the district is working on longer lesson plans. If the shutdown goes beyond two weeks, city educators will need a longer-term strategy.