Murphy rejects calls for regional reopening plan for gyms, indoor dining

Daniel J. Munoz//August 19, 2020//

Murphy rejects calls for regional reopening plan for gyms, indoor dining

Daniel J. Munoz//August 19, 2020//

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The governor pushed back against calls from the state’s business groups that industries with prohibited indoor activities, such as gyms and dining, be allowed to roll out their own reopening plans school districts and high school sports have been able to.

“If you and I are in Monmouth County, and the environment in which in a hypothetical case was not conducive to dining, you and I can get into a car and go up to” a county where it’s allowed, like Bergen County, Gov. Phil Murphy said at his Wednesday COVID-19 press briefing in Trenton.

Gov. Phil Murphy speaks during his, June 12, 2020, COID-19 press conference at War Memorial in Trenton.
Gov. Phil Murphy speaks during his, June 12, 2020, COID-19 press conference at War Memorial in Trenton. – THOMAS COSTELLO, GANNETT

“That’s not the case with schools, you’ve got to go to the school you’re enrolled [in],” he added. “Going to school is existential. Eating out” is not at the same level.

The three biggest industries that have been closed indefinitely are indoor dining, theaters and gyms. Business groups have pressed for restrictions to be loosened so that they can resume operations, and many of these establishments have suffered steep financial losses.

Murphy said that the reopening of gyms and indoor dining would not come on the same day, so as to better track down new spikes in cases.

Self determination

Under the fall reopening plans for New Jersey schools, the state’s 584 districts have to layout plans for how they’ll start the new school year come Labor Day weekend. Many intend to do remote learning, but have to demonstrate to the state education department that they can’t meet the requirements for in-person instruction – which include 6-foot physical distancing, face coverings and intense sanitization – in order to do so.

Meanwhile, Murphy announced Aug. 17 that the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association will have the final say in whether to go forward with high school football.

“It appears that deferring to industry experts and local officials for COVID-19 reopening decisions is the proper process, except when it comes to the reopening of our businesses,” reads a joint letter issued Monday from New Jersey Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Bracken, and New Jersey Business & Industry Association President and CEO Michele Siekerka.

The two cited the NJSIAA’s decision making and Murphy administration’s school reopening plans as examples where “through a regional approach,” reopenings can be pursued “with input from local officials and experts in their industries.”

New Jersey’s school reopening plan calls for dividing New Jersey into six separate regions where the progress of COVID-19 can be monitored by local health officials. That’s similar to how the flu is monitored so that, according to State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, they can react to “the local characteristics.”

The Northwest region contains Morris, Passaic, Sussex and Warren counties; the Northeast includes Bergen, Essex and Hudson counties; the Central-west includes Hunterdon, Mercer and Somerset counties; the Central-east includes Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean and Union counties; the Southwest includes Camden, Burlington Gloucester and Salem counties; and the Southeast includes Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties.

“This regionalized system will provide a view of transmission more locally and help inform decisions on the ground,” the state health commissioner said last week. “The risk assessment provides guidance for the local health departments.”

Tom Bracken, CEO of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.
Michele Siekerka, president and CEO, NJBIA.

That’s something that can be adopted for businesses, Bracken and Siekerka said.

Murphy contends that any such reopening is simply not possible, given new rebounds of COVID-19 in the state and its resurgence across the country.

He pushed back against allegations from the press at a Wednesday briefing that he and his staff have for months denied requests for a meeting from the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, the trade group that represents both the dining and fitness industries.

“With all due respect, no request from [NJRHA President Marilou Halverson] or someone else has come to me from the restaurant association,” Murphy said, adding that he had gotten a text message from Halverson earlier in the day. “That’s the first text I’ve gotten from her and if she sees it different, she’s welcome to correct the record.”

Halverson was not immediately available for comment.

On Wednesday and last week, Murphy was critical of another letter filed by the NJ Chamber, NJBIA and dozens of other business groups. “If you jump the gun and go to economic health and don’t take the proper steps on the public health side, you run the risk of this blowing up in your face,” the governor said Wednesday. “You’ve got to see both sides of the equation.”

“Let’s stop kidding ourselves,” he said last week.