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By Independence Day weekend New Jerseyans could be dining at indoor restaurants, gambling at casinos and racetracks and hosting large house parties, state officials said, assuming there isn’t an uptick in the spread of coronavirus or related hospitalizations.
Gov. Phil Murphy announced additional steps to reopen the Garden State economy Monday and praised residents for adhering to the strict social-distancing measures needed to contain the spread of COVID-19, which he said made it possible to lift additional restrictions. The governor — who has faced growing criticism from business owners and lawmakers in both parties over the pace of reopening — said other changes could be announced this week.
Murphy said casinos, racetracks and indoor restaurants should be able to reopen Thursday, July 2 — under limited capacity and other modified conditions, some details of which are still pending from the state Department of Health.
Casinos and contact tracing
Casinos offered to collaborate with public health officials to collect data for contact tracing, he said, and the state will create testing protocols for staff. In addition, Murphy signed an executive order that immediately expanded capacity on indoor and outdoor gatherings, which can now include up to 100 and 250 people, respectively.
But Murphy said data would continue to drive his final decision on changes pending for early next month.
“The metrics continue to be of vital importance, and if the current trends change between now and next Thursday, or if we feel uncomfortable with the implementation of the guidance, we will hit pause on the current plan,” he said, pointing to the June 17 positivity rate of 2.4% and an 85% decline in COVID-19 hospitalization rates since their peak in mid-April.
“But, that’s the last thing I want to do, and I know that if everyone keeps answering the call of personal responsibility, and using their common sense for the common good, we will see these numbers continue to track the right way and we will get to July 2 as we have planned,” Murphy added, hinting that he soon plans to lift restrictions on other indoor activities.
“You have all literally saved lives by your compliance with social distancing. We must keep up this good work and not go backward,” DOH Commissioner Judy Persichilli said Monday. More than 169,400 New Jerseyans have been diagnosed with the virus, including nearly 12,900 who have died.
The Murphy administration has taken multiple steps to reopen the state, starting with beaches and pools in mid-May; outdoor dining last week; hair and nail salons, organized sports and indoor pools on Monday; and shopping malls next week. Murphy, who disclosed at his media briefing Monday that he has dined at four restaurants so far, said the state is in the “middle phase of Stage Two” of the three-stage strategy he outlined in May and that if residents “continue to be smart,” officials can soon set a date for entering Stage Three.
Missing masks on Jersey Shore
But Murphy and other administration officials also expressed concern over images circulating online and in news broadcasts of crowds of young people packing Jersey Shore beaches and boardwalks, where few appeared to be wearing a mask. And if these actions start to trigger an uptick in cases, the reopening schedule could be adjusted, the governor said.
“That is concerning,” Murphy said, noting he is also worried about visitors from other states that have not adhered to such strict social-distancing protocols and where cases are now climbing. “We’re presenting the data as we see it every day, and we’re going to watch it like a hawk.”
Acting State Police Superintendent Col. Patrick Callahan also called these images “a tremendous cause for concern” at the media briefing Monday. Murphy suggested that local police may need to step up enforcement when they see situations that violate the state’s coronavirus restrictions, most of which have been in place since March.
“Folks should know we can’t look the other way,” Murphy said. “It’s one thing if it’s a little bit noncompliant, but this is out of bound,” he added.
Murphy’s announcements on Monday included:
- His signing of Executive Order 156, which expands indoor gatherings from a maximum of 50 people to 100 people, as long as this is no more than 25% of the room capacity.
- The executive order also permits outdoor gatherings to include up to 250 people, up from 100. The cap does not apply to political activities or religious events.
- His decision to permit Atlantic City to reopen casinos at 25% of capacity on July 2; masks, temperature checks and other protective measures will be required. “This means that thousands of New Jerseyans can get back to work,” the governor said.
- Racetracks — including their betting areas and lounges — will be permitted to welcome customers on July 2, if they adhere to capacity guidelines (25% maximum) and other restrictions.
- Indoor restaurants — including those at casinos — can also reopen July 2, albeit at just 25% of their regular seating capacity. (The executive order Murphy signed Monday also clarifies requirements for outdoor dining, which has been operating under limitations since last week.)
- Specific regulations for casinos and restaurants are still pending, but Murphy said they will include requiring masks and temperature checks for guests and staff. Some casinos have opted to test the system first with family and loyal customers only, he said. Visitors who refuse to comply will not be allowed inside.
“We’re not going to tolerate any knuckleheads trying to ruin it for those who wish to enjoy themselves responsibly — especially if those knuckleheads could be spreading COVID-19,” Murphy said.