Business groups press Murphy for timeline on COVID reopenings

Daniel J. Munoz//March 8, 2021//

Business groups press Murphy for timeline on COVID reopenings

Daniel J. Munoz//March 8, 2021//

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A group of 90 of the state’s largest chambers of commerce, lobbying and trade groups and business associations are pressing Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration for a more concrete timeline for when they can expect COVID-19 business restrictions to be relaxed.

“[T]he pace of the vaccine rollout is continuing to improve, while warmer weather is just around the corner,” reads a letter dated March 5 to Murphy, authored by the umbrella New Jersey Business Coalition. “To maximize the state’s economic recovery, businesses need visibility to a reopening decision-making plan now in order to plan for the months ahead.”

Murphy has been largely conservative in recent weeks about any quicker reopenings, contending that they are far riskier amid uncertainty surrounding the far more contagious COVID-19 variants.

He enacted a host of restrictions on businesses a year ago in a bid to control COVID-19 as it rampaged through the Mid-Atlantic and swept across the nation, overwhelming hospitals. The restrictions cratered the economy and drove up unemployment, and political pressure has mounted for governors to speed up their reopenings.

On the one hand, the governor said last week that he expects a “much more normal summer” on the Jersey Shore in the coming months, as the state coasts down from the second wave and vaccine efforts are ramped up.

But, he maintained on March 5, “if it weren’t for the variants, I think we would be moving aggressively sooner.”

As of March 8, state health officials logged more than 130 cases of a highly contagious COVID-19 variant first detected in the U.K., known as B117. There have been two cases of a variant first detected in Brazil, called P1.

“We don’t want to lurch forward and have to step back,” the governor said.

The most recent measures taken to reopen the state economy occurred last week when Murphy announced he was expanding capacity for wedding receptions to 35% – the same as indoor dining, casinos, theaters, gyms and salons.

In the letter, the coalition is asking the governor to provide “definitive thresholds” of COVID-19 data that would prompt further reopening decisions, be it total daily cases and fatalities, total hospitalizations, patients on ventilators or in critical care, the rate of transmission, or longer-term data such as weekly averages.

Murphy has, over the past year, largely shied away from saying just what those metrics would be.

“We need a comprehensive strategic reopening plan that lays out the indicators and thresholds that will determine further reopening this spring and summer,” the letter reads.” Businesses need that predictability to make informed decisions that are right for their operations, employees, and customers.”

Large-scale gatherings like weddings, and other events at indoor venues, are booked months in advance. The coalition said that was particularly worrisome given the uncertainty around what capacity restrictions were for gatherings of that size.

“[B]usinesses need to know now what they can reasonably expect for the spring and summer. At a minimum, capacity limits should be relative to the square footage of a venue,” the letter reads. “As other COVID-19 public health precautions remain in place, increasing gathering capacity limits is responsible and reasonable, especially for outdoor gatherings given the approaching warm weather.”

Statewide vaccination efforts are key to meaningfully and permanently rolling back COVID-19 restrictions. Those have been sluggish trailing forward, mired by extreme dose shortages and bureaucratic headaches.

State health officials are expecting a surge of available doses around Easter in early April, thanks to the addition of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine, on top of the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna doses.