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Gov. Murphy announces New Jersey is loosening COVID-19 rules; critics urge him to move faster

Murphy also lifted the restriction on indoor gatherings, allowing for gatherings of 50 persons or 25 percent of a building’s capacity, whichever number is lower.

In this May 19, 2020 file photo New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy listens during his daily coronavirus news conference at the War Memorial in Trenton, N.J.
In this May 19, 2020 file photo New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy listens during his daily coronavirus news conference at the War Memorial in Trenton, N.J.Read moreChris Pedota / AP

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday lifted the state’s coronavirus-prompted stay-at-home order and relaxed restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings.

"With more and more of our businesses reopening, we are no longer asking you to stay at home,” the governor said, “but we are asking you to continue to be responsible and safe.”

Murphy also relaxed restrictions on indoor gatherings, allowing for ones of 50 people or 25% of a building’s capacity, whichever is lower. Previously, indoor gatherings were limited to 10 people.

Everyone at indoor gatherings should wear face masks, he said. The order “ensures religious services will be appropriately distanced and as safe as possible.”

Outdoor gatherings can now be held with as many as 100 people, an increase from 25, he said.

Murphy noted that the new guidance on gatherings does not apply to businesses, which must wait for orders pertaining to their specific industry before they can reopen.

Earlier this month, New Jersey announced tentative plans to allow outdoor dining, limited-capacity retail, and day-care centers to resume Monday. Hair salons, barber shops, nail salons, and swimming pools are slated to reopen June 22.

Outdoor recreational and entertainment businesses — except for amusement parks, water parks, and arcades — also may reopen immediately.

In light of recent protests over the death of George Floyd, who was killed at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, Murphy said he would allow outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people for “First Amendment-protected activities such as political protests of any persuasion and outdoor religious services.”

Murphy drew backlash for participating in demonstrations after his administration had cited people who organized protests of the coronavirus lockdown. The governor has said he encourages protesters to wear masks and practice social distancing, as well as to get tested for the coronavirus after participating in demonstrations.

“The science tells us outdoor activities are far safer than indoor activities,” he said, “and we will continue to base our decisions fairly on facts and data.”

But North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello said the capacity numbers Murphy is throwing out seem random and meaningless at this point.

“You’ve got thousands of people on beaches and boardwalks,” Rosenello said. “The governor is marching with thousands of people in protests. He needs to move past this silliness and focus on ending the complete destruction of the economy in New Jersey."

Risk tolerance

New Jersey still has among the highest case rates in the country, though numbers are declining. On Tuesday, the state reported 375 additional confirmed cases and 91 additional deaths. For the sixth straight day, Murphy said, hospitalizations were below 2,000, and the state’s field hospitals saw only 12 patients.

But after months of stalled business, the state must also weigh the ongoing economic toll of remaining closed, as well as residents’ risk tolerance, said Suzanne Willard, an associate dean for global health at the Rutgers School of Nursing.

“It’s a personal dialogue people need to have, and I believe that’s what Gov. Murphy is trying to say. Yeah, you can go and open up — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t risk," Willard said.

Rather than focusing on the number of people allowed in a building or at an outdoor gathering, Willard suggested that people consider whether they’ll be able to maintain a safe distance from others and whether others are wearing masks.

‘It’s just so brutal’

The announcements were greeted by confusion and continued frustration as business owners wondered why the governor won’t also loosen restrictions on indoor dining and outdoor amusement parks.

“He just does not like small business resort towns,” said Wes Kazmarck, head of the Ocean City Boardwalk Merchants.

He said Shore merchants were struggling to stay solvent. “It’s just so brutal for these people,” he said. “We need to open up rides.... You’ve got to let us open. You can jump on a plane and fly from one hot spot to another, but you can’t walk in and have a slice of pizza.”

But Jeff Marshall, director of sales and marketing at the Claridge in Atlantic City, a non-casino hotel that specializes in weddings, called Murphy’s announcements “extremely good news."

”It would be better if it were 100," he said, referring to the indoor limit of 50 people.

Still, he said, the limit would allow the hotel to court business meetings and smaller weddings, and book larger outdoor weddings. The Claridge’s rooftop bar and restaurant, the Vue, opens Monday.

“It’s a start,” he said. “We have a good outside space, a ton of banquet rooms. We’re up to 50 for that, and hopefully it keeps growing.”

Barring a spike in COVID-19 cases, Murphy said, he anticipates the capacity limits on all outdoor activities to be raised to 250 on June 22 and 500 on July 3.

So far, he said, compliance with public health guidance has prevented outbreaks as the state slowly reopens. While a Cape May County house party may have led to at least a dozen new coronavirus cases in Bucks County last week, Murphy said reopened beach towns don’t appear to be any more of a breeding ground than inland communities without tourists.

In Pa., protecting health workers

Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order was lifted last week when Gov. Tom Wolf moved all the counties, including Philadelphia and its collar counties, to the “yellow" phase. On Tuesday, Pennsylvania reported 493 new cases and 61 new deaths; Philadelphia had 131 new cases and 11 new deaths.

New Pennsylvania health mandates issued Tuesday will require hospitals to provide better notification of COVID-19 exposure, ensure the use of federally approved personal protective equipment, and make testing more accessible for health-care workers.

“I have heard from nurses and staff, and this order responds directly to many of their safety concerns,” the state’s health secretary, Rachel Levine, said in a statement Tuesday. “It ensures that the necessary steps are in place to deliver a safer environment so these workers can continue providing high-quality care during these extraordinary times.”

More than 5,000 health-care workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in the state, said Maureen May, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals

The order requires hospitals to notify workers that they have been exposed to a person with COVID-19 within 24 hours, and test them regardless of symptoms. They also must give all workers nationally certified respirators upon request if the mask they’re using is damaged, soiled, or not working properly, and require most people in a hospital to wear masks. Hospitals must comply by Monday.

PASNAP officials believe the order addresses concerns from Temple University Hospital staff about masks imported from China that workers have said are prone to breaking.

Meanwhile, another state agency was warning residents to consider COVID-19 in their hurricane kits.

“The Atlantic hurricane season started just last week, and while Pennsylvania doesn’t often take a direct hit like coastal states, we face weather systems that can cause flooding or significant power outages,” Jeff Thomas, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency’s executive deputy director, said at a news conference.

He urged citizens to know when and where to shelter in case of dangerous weather; to monitor weather alerts using cell phones or a weather radio; and to prepare an emergency kit that includes personal protective gear such as face masks as well as food, medicines, and baby supplies.

Staff writers Jason Laughlin and Marie McCullough contributed to this article.