Gov. Phil Murphy said his administration is looking at restricting public gatherings where groups of people congregate, as public health officials grapple with the second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks slamming into every corner of the state.
“My hope is that we don’t have to do a whole lot of blunt instrument stuff,” Murphy said at an unrelated event Tuesday morning in South Orange, adding that restrictions on gathering capacity are “clearly one item that will be on that list.”
New Jersey logged 1,192 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and 1,036 cases on Tuesday and has qualified for its own travel restrictions for people entering the state from hotspot parts of the country. Hospitalizations are nearing 800 COVID-19 patients—more than double what they were at the end of the summer.
Under existing state regulations, indoor gatherings are limited to 25 people or 25% of a room’s capacity, while outdoor gatherings are limited to 500 people, where social distancing must be practiced.
Political and religious outdoor gatherings have no capacity restrictions. Indoor weddings, funerals and memorial services, indoor theaters, and religious and political gatherings are all limited to 150 people or 25% a room’s capacity, whichever is lower.
Many recent outbreaks have been traced back to private, indoor gatherings where mask usage and social distancing is not followed, according to Murphy and New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, as New Jerseyans are driven inside by the colder weather.
Outdoor dining arrangements that offered social outlets over the summer have been rendered useless for both patrons and restaurant owners, prompting fears from business owners over how they’ll survive the cold winter months.
Indeed, the restrictions he would likely roll-out would be scalpel-like, the governor has said, focusing on hyper-local regions where outbreaks are occurring, rather than the state as a whole as was done between March and June.
Towns with a major university presence – such as West Long Branch, which houses Monmouth University, and New Brunswick, the home of one of Rutgers University’s campuses – were among initial hotspots this fall. The ultra-Orthodox, Jewish-majority community of Lakewood Township in Ocean County was also a nexus of COVID-19 cases following the High Holy Days in late September. That is becoming less the case now, the governor cautioned.
“If you look at the counties today … Ocean County, it’s not in the top five today,” Murphy said on Tuesday.
Ocean County however, logged 154 new COVID-19 cases, according to Tuesday data from the state health department. Following Ocean County was Essex with 132 new cases, Union with 109 new cases, Middlesex with 108 new cases and Bergen with 103 new cases.
Unregulated gatherings have been particularly problematic, the governor said. With the holiday season coming up – Thanksgiving in just over a month – Murphy warned that such gatherings among family and friends should be far more limited and alien.
“It’s tough,” Murphy said. “What we’re asking folks to buy into is a proposition that smaller, inside-your-bubble, maybe even outside if the weather allows this, celebration, for the upcoming holidays buys us the ability to have a more normal experience for next year’s holidays.”
Despite indoor dining having the go-ahead over Labor Day weekend to resume operations after six months of closure, Murphy said those reopenings have not driven any spikes.
“These are mostly gatherings that are beyond our ability to effectively regulate or easily enforce compliance, so it’s not public square gatherings,” the governor said.
Murphy said there was a low likelihood that he would ramp up restrictions or force restaurants to shutter indoor dining, but he has paused efforts allowing restaurants to gradually expand indoor capacity.o