New Jersey would be further along in its reopening were it not for the growing presence of a highly transmissible variant of COVID-19 first deleted in the United Kingdom, according to statements made by Gov. Phil Murphy on Feb. 17.
The most recent reopenings were the expansion of indoor dining capacity from 25% to 35%, which went into effect just before Super Bowl weekend. Other indoor businesses – including gyms, salons and casinos – could also operate at expanded capacity.
Yet uncertainty with how the virus might spread and how it could affect the state has given state health leaders pause on rolling back more restrictions originally put in place to keep the virus at bay.
“But for the variant, I think we would be planning right now a much more aggressive series of steps to reopen over the next few weeks,” Murphy said during a daily COVID-19 press briefing on Feb. 17. “The variant sort of hangs over our head.”
Many public health officials NJBIZ interviewed echoed similar sentiments: that the spread of these new variants coupled with the sluggish vaccine efforts make any business reopenings all the more ill-advised.
Murphy said that a continued drop in hospitalizations would inevitably trigger the loosening of more restrictions. Indeed many of the key metrics used to gauge the spread of the virus have all gone down.
“But I think we will be more cautious than we otherwise would have been absent the variants.”
The governor noted that he has in the past paused reopenings. Indoor dining was slated to resume just before July 4 weekend, but he delayed it until early September. And he put the reopening plans on hold during the fall at the onset of a second wave.
New Jersey has seen 50 cases of the U.K. variant, and few of them were detected in people with a known travel history, according to New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. That indicates a community spread and foothold that the mutated form of the virus has in the state.
“We know it’s more easily transmitted,” the governor added. “And the science is incomplete. We don’t have clarity — I don’t think anyone does in America right now — on how much hold it will take and its impact.”
Dr. Eddy Bresnitz, a COVID-19 consultant for the state Health Department, assured that the vaccine’s effectiveness is not dampened against the new variants.
But the ability to make decisions about a reopening is more difficult “when you don’t really know what’s coming,” he said.
“At some point, those decisions about loosening the restrictions still have to be made.”