Editor’s note: This story was updated at 11:37 a.m. EST on Oct. 5, 2021, after the CDC retracted its previously released 2021 COVID-19 guidance for holiday gatherings.
State officials are warily eyeing a potential “winter spike” in COVID-19 cases and hospitalization as temperatures drop and force more people inside.
The phenomenon panned out last year amid the colder weather, when cases began to surge in October 2020, before plateauing at the start of 2021 and then dropping off.
“It is only a matter of time before the weather will be forcing more people back indoors,” Gov. Phil Murphy said during his regular COVID-19 press briefing on Oct. 4.
“To keep this number low and prevent another winter spike we do need everyone to not only get vaccinated, but we strongly encourage you to wear a mask and keep a social distance when among a crowd indoors,” he continued.
Neither social distancing nor indoor or outdoor facemasks are required in most public settings, save for in schools and health care settings where face coverings are mandated.
That in part has allowed for the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 to spread like wildfire among those in the state that have yet to get the vaccine. As of Oct. 4, nearly 5.9 million people in the state have been fully vaccinated, roughly 75%.
State health officials are aiming to roll out the Pfizer booster shot to roughly 1.1 million New Jerseyans who got their second jab six months ago.
Just 10 months ago, face coverings were in fact required in all public settings. Bars and restaurants, wedding venues, casinos, malls, retail, gyms, salons and many other businesses had to operate at extremely reduced capacity.
Without masks and social distancing mandates in place, public health officials and experts are warning about a twin resurgence of both COVID-19, the flu and cold.
“It’s likely that flu viruses and the virus that causes COVID-19 will be spreading this fall and winter,” New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said on Monday.
Earlier this week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance calling for holiday gatherings to be 6 feet apart, outdoors or via video chat, but that guidance was pulled.
“Attending gatherings to celebrate events and holidays increases your risk of getting and spreading COVID-19,” the now-yanked CDC guidance said.
If the gatherings are indoors and in-person, the CDC said in its retracted guidance that doors and windows should be opened and window fans turned on to increase ventilation. It also recommended the COVID-19 vaccine for guests, and to have masks on hand and to wear them in crowded indoor public settings and outdoor settings in places where there’s a surge of the virus. Those not fully vaccinated should also wear a mask, the CDC added.
“We were open for business last Halloween, we’re open for business this Halloween,” Murphy assured. The concern, he said, is “this several-month period where it’s one holiday after another… the key will be how people behave when they’re inside.”
The fear is not COVID-19 spreading among trick or treaters, but rather, crowded indoor basement Halloween parties or gatherings around the dinner table.
Murphy, who is facing reelection in a month, has so far held off on reinstating any of those restrictions but has denied that politics or his elections were at all factored into his decision-making.
Over the summer, Murphy said that indoor face coverings are “strongly encouraged” in all public indoor settings, stopping short of a mandate.
Although between July and September, daily cases and total hospitalizations began hitting their highest levels since the start of the spring, those figures have begun to plateau in recent days.
“It’s never going to go to zero,” Murphy said of COVID-19 cases. “The operating assumption is that it’s going to be in our midst. We’re not going to hold ourselves to a zero-reality here.”
The rate of transmission, or the speed at which the virus spreads, was 0.91 on Monday, staying below the benchmark of 1 for the third day in a row, according to data from the New Jersey Department of Health.