Capacity limits are easing, vaccination rates are rising, and COVID-19 case numbers are crashing. On the third Monday of May, public officials — with familiar caveats — were offering a far brighter outlook for summer than they were in May 2020.
“We are facing a much different world than one year ago,” said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. “We have this virus on the run.” He added that the state’s pupils would be in schools in the fall, barring further coronavirus outbreaks. In Camden County, as many as 1,000 students returned Monday for in-person learning for the first time in a year.
But Murphy said New Jersey was keeping its indoor-masking order for now, despite new CDC guidance that fully vaccinated people can safely shed their face coverings inside and outside, though he expected to end the requirement “in the not so distant future.”
However, he emphasized that’s not going to happen until more people are vaccinated.
“I just don’t want to get burned. I don’t want to go back,” he added.
Murphy also said lifting the indoor requirement would place an unfair burden on store employees and other retail workers to police their patrons.
“The majority of New Jerseyans are still unvaccinated,” he noted. “And we are not checking anyone’s vaccination status at the door when you go to the supermarket or to a hardware store. I don’t know how we can expect workers to be able to tell who’s vaccinated from who isn’t.”
As of Monday, 43% of New Jerseyans and 33% of Pennsylvanians had been fully vaccinated, with the Garden State figures including more than 22,000 in the 12- to 15-year-old age group, now eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, the states reported.
Positive-test numbers have plummeted in both states, with Pennsylvania reporting just 875 new cases on Monday, the lowest number in its daily reports in more than seven months, and New Jersey added just 490 cases.
Philadelphia on Monday reported it was averaging just over 180 new cases daily during the last seven days, a significant drop over recent weeks.
The local case figures paralleled the national trend.
“Today, for the first time since the pandemic began, cases are down in all 50 states,” President Joe Biden said Monday.
The average number of COVID-19 cases per day has dropped 53% since the middle of April, according to an Inquirer analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University. The United States reported 16,864 new cases Sunday, the fewest in one day in more than 11 months.
Biden again urged people to get inoculated. “If the unvaccinated get vaccinated, they’ll protect themselves and other unvaccinated people around them,” he said.
The CDC decreed last week that those who are fully vaccinated need no longer wear masks in most settings. Pennsylvania has signed on to the policy, but Philadelphia, which has its own virus guidelines, has not yet announced its intentions.
In the meantime, SEPTA announced that it would remove all passenger-capacity limits on its vehicles but would keep mask mandates in place.
Capacity limits for indoor and outdoor events in Pennsylvania eased Monday, two weeks before the state is set to lift all coronavirus mitigation measures except for masking requirements.
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Indoor events across the state now can accommodate 50% of a space’s capacity, an increase from 25%, and outdoor events at 75% of a space’s capacity, up from 50%.
At 12:01 a.m. on Memorial Day, Pennsylvania will lift all COVID-19 restrictions related to gatherings, restaurants, and other businesses.
Philadelphia is operating under a separate schedule. On Friday, it will end restrictions on capacity limits at gatherings, restaurants, and other businesses, and lift other limits on June 11.
While New Jersey will ease gathering and capacity limits Wednesday, Murphy cautioned against moving too quickly on stripping away all coronavirus protocols.
“If we can save one more life, it will have been worth it.”
Inquirer staff writers Melanie Burney, Erin McCarthy, and Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.