Gov. Phil Murphy declared Sunday that New Jersey is “in the fight of our lives,” warning residents that he could deploy the nuclear option and again shutter most of the state.
That’s what he did in the spring, when COVID-19 first ravaged New Jersey. This fall, he’s taken much less drastic measures. Instead of closing bars altogether, he’s telling them to close at 10 p.m. Instead of banning indoor gatherings, he’s lowed the limit to 10 people — unless it’s a wedding, funeral or memorial service, then 150 people can gather. Instead of ending outdoor sports, he’s capped spectators at 150 — but that doesn’t include the players and coaches.
The state likely does not need to be paralyzed again, public health experts generally agree. But they question whether science is guiding the decisions of Murphy, who is up for re-election next year, with two experts going so far as to call the recent regulations “arbitrary.”
“I think early in the pandemic in New York and New Jersey, science outlined all our decisions,” said Perry Halkitis, dean of Rutgers University School of Public Health. “Sometimes the decisions don’t align with what science would direct.
“These are decisions that seem, quite frankly from a purely scientific perspective, that they have faults with them.”
The Murphy administration insisted that they are making scientific considerations in the face of this imposing second wave. Michael Zhadanovsky, a spokesman for the governor, also pointed to several states that he said have similar or stricter rules on gatherings.
Public health experts recognize that the longer the pandemic stretches, the more pressure governors face.
Preeti Malani, the chief health officer at the University of Michigan, said that governors are “having to walk a difficult line” when it comes to the second wave of the coronavirus.
“In the spring it was easier because everything was about health and nothing else mattered,” she said, adding that governors are now having to include economic and political considerations in their thinking.
Murphy has made the decisions to limit gatherings and shut down restaurants early as New Jersey records virus data not seen since the state’s peak in April. The governor on Sunday announced 3,851 new COVID-19 cases and 13 deaths.
Murphy on Sunday urged residents to “take this pandemic seriously” as recent new case averages have rivaled the worst of the spring. A huge caveat in comparing those numbers is the state’s vastly improved testing capacity. In the spring, New Jersey was running about 12,000 tests per day, almost surely undercounting cases by a wide margin. The state currently runs about 45,000 tests each day.
On Monday, NJ Advance Media reported that the governor will put additional restrictions in place to slow the virus. Starting Monday, Dec. 7, outdoor gatherings with more than 25 people and indoor high school sports will be banned.
Still, the average daily case count is up more than 200% from last month, showing the severity of the current spike.
“We are in the thick of the COVID second wave,” Murphy said last week, as he was pleading with people to limit their Thanksgiving plans.
Sarah Allred, an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers-University Camden who has been studying coronavirus data since the first wave, confirms the state’s alarming rate and worries more people will need care than health care workers can handle.
“We’re clearly in the middle of a rapid rise in cases,” Allred said.
Experts agree that hospitals being overwhelmed in the spring meant fewer people survived COVID-19. So far in this wave, New Jersey has managed to avoid that same crush. Part of the reason for that is coronavirus cases are spread much more evenly across the state than they were in the spring.
But Allred said she doesn’t think the recent restrictions imposed by the governor are enough to reverse the trend.
“There are still too many people coming in contact with each other,” she said.
So why has Murphy, who has said over and over again that he’s following the science, not put more stringent measures in place? Ben Dworkin, director of Rowan University’s Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, said maybe the governor is feeling a different kind of pressure than he was in the spring.
“Mishandle this and his approval rating goes in the tank,” Dworkin said.
“It’s not an easy line. People are frustrated and they’re starting to let it out. He has to balance the medical science with the social science.”
And Murphy, even if he’s not saying so yet, has a rather big political consideration in front of him: He’s running for re-election in 2021.
A Rutgers-Eagleton Poll from earlier this month found that 62% of people in New Jersey approve of the job Murphy is doing as governor, while 33% disapprove. While that’s down 15 percentage points from his 77% approval in May, as he was battling the first wave of COVID-19, it’s still one of the highest ever for a New Jersey governor.
Still, the gubernatorial election is more than 11 months away and no front-runner has emerged to challenge Murphy. He also has this second wave of coronavirus to contend with before he can shift his thinking fully to re-election.
Dworkin said even though Murphy may be thinking more politically than he was earlier this year, if he can keep the state out of another health crisis, he will emerge looking good.
“Good policy will be good politics for him,” Dworkin said. “I don’t think he’s directly thinking about re-election, but he is feeling the political pressure.”
Not everyone in New Jersey’s political class thinks the governor is playing politics. Longtime state Sen. Raymond Lesniak said he doesn’t see any strong challengers to the governor, so he doesn’t think there’s much political pressure there.
“You have to balance the fatigue,” said Lesniak, who is now retired. “You have to open the spigot a little bit so people can get out.”
He added that he does think the governor is still deferring to the science, saying that Murphy’s order to close bars and restaurants at 10 p.m “is somewhat science-based because the longer people are inside the better chance they get exposed.”
The public health experts interviewed for this story were less charitable.
“The 10 people restriction seems really arbitrary to me,” said Halkitis, the Rutgers dean, about Murphy’s recent 10-person restriction for indoor gatherings. “Which 10 people, for what purpose, how big is the space?
“I don’t know why the number 10 is magical, frankly. Ten people in a 7,000-square-foot mansion is different than 10 people in a 700-square-foot apartment. Where is that number coming from?”
Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiologist at Montclair State University, also questioned the 10 p.m. shutdown order on bars and restaurants.
“The curfew does seem rather arbitrary, and I’m not convinced that this measure will have a meaningful impact on curbing new cases,” she said. “I suppose the idea may be that people may drink more alcohol later into the evening and that may impact on their ability to make good decisions regarding mask wearing and spatial distancing, but that is a bit of a stretch.
“This virus isn’t more or less infectious before or after 10 p.m.”
A spokesman for the Murphy administration told NJ Advance Media last week that the 10-person limit for indoor gatherings was based on a simple idea: The fewer people you spend time around, the less likely you are to be infected.
Same goes for the 10 p.m. closing time for bars and restaurants, said Murphy spokesman Zhadanovsky, who quoted the governor. The later bars are open, the more likely people are to “let their hair down” and not take COVID-19 as seriously.
The governor last week didn’t announce any new restrictions to fight the spreading virus, though he has repeatedly said all options are “on the table.”
Still, the health experts did sympathize with the difficult position Murphy is in.
“There are costs to everything we do,” Allred said. “There are economic costs to shutting down the economy. There are physical costs to losing lives. Where do we draw that boundary?
“I don’t know what the exact right thing to do is.”
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Payton Guion may be reached at email@example.com.