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New Jersey will lift mask mandate and social distancing just in time for Memorial Day weekend

Vaccinated people can remove their masks indoors in New Jersey starting Friday.

Barbara Mayer wears a mask walking to shop at Del Buono's Bakery and Carmen’s Deli in Stratford, New Jersey past the statues of mask wearing Blues Brothers last year.
Barbara Mayer wears a mask walking to shop at Del Buono's Bakery and Carmen’s Deli in Stratford, New Jersey past the statues of mask wearing Blues Brothers last year.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Vaccinated people can take off their masks indoors in New Jersey starting Friday, Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday, and businesses will no longer be asked to maintain social distancing.

The coronavirus restrictions will lift just as the Memorial Day weekend and the start of the Jersey Shore season kicks off, signaling a summer free from most of the rules that have governed aspects of daily life for more than a year.

“Lifting the mask mandate is not a license to be a knucklehead,” Murphy said at his regular briefing, noting that even on Monday the state still logged 10 deaths from COVID-19. “Lifting the mask mandate simply acknowledges how far we’ve come together and that together we’ll cross the finish line.”

On a day when the United States reported the fewest deaths since the start of the pandemic, case numbers and hospitalizations throughout the region continued to plummet. Philadelphia reported 295 new cases and six deaths, while Pennsylvania added 1,549 new cases over the last two days. In New Jersey, the daily total of 260 cases was the lowest since August.

As demand for vaccines continues to decline, Philadelphia’s two FEMA-run mass vaccination sites — at Esperanza and the Convention Center — will deliver their final shots Tuesday. The sites administered more than 350,000 doses combined, accounting for almost 25% of all doses given in the city, according to FEMA. The city will now focus more on smaller events and other outreach efforts.

And as Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney searches for a new health commissioner, one lawmaker is pushing for him to hire Ala Stanford, the physician who founded the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium.

City Councilmember Cindy Bass sent a letter Monday to Kenney recommending Stanford for the job. Stanford, a pediatric surgeon, founded the organization to provide COVID-19 testing in Black neighborhoods before shifting her focus to vaccines.

“For decades, we have been aware of racial disparities in health outcomes, but the needle has not moved in Philadelphia on addressing them,” Bass said in her letter. “Dr. Stanford is well trusted and well regarded, especially by our Black communities, which is vital to push our city in the right direction.”

Former Health Commissioner Thomas Farley resigned this month after disclosing that he had authorized the cremation and disposal of victims’ remains from the 1985 MOVE bombing. Those remains were later discovered in a box in the Medical Examiner’s Office, and the Kenney administration has hired a law firm to investigate the incident.

Stanford, a Philadelphia native who lives in Montgomery County, would have to move into the city to take a job in the Kenney administration. She didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

“The Mayor appreciates the Councilmember’s letter and looks forward to kicking off the search process to fill this vital position,” Kenney spokesperson Deana Gamble said.

In New Jersey, masks will still be required in health-care settings, schools, child-care centers, camps, on public transportation, in some state offices, and in shelters and correctional facilities. Businesses can still decide to require that customers wear masks and maintain social distance, Murphy said, and he urged anyone with health concerns for themselves or their families to continue taking precautions.

”There is nothing wrong with being cautious,” Murphy said.

Dance floors at bars and restaurants in New Jersey can also reopen this weekend, and customers can order food and drinks while standing at bars again. The state will lift indoor gathering limits on June 4, ending restrictions on venues that have 1,000 or more seats, including MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, where the New York Giants and Jets play.

Murphy cited dropping case numbers and hospitalizations in lifting the mask mandate, particularly in recent weeks as vaccinations have continued. More than 4.7 million people are at least partially vaccinated, while more than 3.9 million are fully inoculated — putting the state within reach of its goal of vaccinating about 4.7 million people by late June.

The governor had been under growing pressure to lift the mandate following new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said earlier this month that vaccinated people could safely ditch masks indoors.

Murphy expressed concern last week that lifting the mask mandate would put an unfair burden on retail workers to determine who is and is not vaccinated. On Monday, he said most people who aren’t vaccinated will “do the right thing” by continuing to wear masks.

He said political pressure played no role in the timing of Monday’s announcement but acknowledged it would have become increasingly difficult to maintain the rule now that Pennsylvania and New York have jettisoned indoor mask mandates.

“At a certain point, we gotta open up,” Murphy said. “Are we out of the woods? We’re not. But we are in a meaningfully, dramatically different and better place. ... We believe this is the responsible moment in time.”

Staff writer Rob Tornoe contributed to this article.