New Jersey said May 17 it is keeping its indoor mask requirements in effect, despite the Biden administration loosening guidelines for fully vaccinated people and neighboring New York and Pennsylvania doing the same.
Under an order Gov. Phil Murphy is signing, the mask requirement will be fully lifted for outdoor settings, but it will still be in effect for indoor settings, as will social distancing.
“While we have made tremendous progress, we aren’t out of the woods yet,” the governor said during his COVID-19 daily press briefing on Monday.
“We are going to be able to take off our masks indoors in the not-so-distant future as more and more people complete their vaccination courses,” he said. “We just can’t yet because we need to know, unequivocally, that doing so will not lead to a backslide in our progress.”
On May 13, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fully vaccinated Americans, in most circumstances, do not have to wear face coverings nor practice social distancing in most indoor and outdoor settings. Masks should still be worn in crowded settings, the CDC said, such as on public transportation and in hospitals. And businesses and local governments can still have their own mask requirements.
“We’re not there yet,” the governor said on May 14, after the guidelines were released. He warned that outbreaks of the virus could flare up if masking requirements were lifted.
Despite the state’s efforts to coordinate restrictions and reopenings with its neighbors, the mask requirement makes New Jersey an outlier.
The governor was repeatedly pressed by several reporters on Monday about his decision to keep the mask requirement in place.”I can’t speak for our neighbors,” Murphy said when asked about the Pennsylvania and New York decisions.
“More time on the clock when you got the numbers going in the right direction, when you got the virus on the run, is a good thing,” he added.
Murphy contends that the state is not at a place where it can afford to remove the mask mandate. And, he argued that businesses cannot be forced into the position of policing mask usage and discerning vaccinated from unvaccinated customers, an especially daunting task given that “the majority of New Jerseyans are still unvaccinated.”
“We’re not checking anyone’s vaccine status at the door when you go to the supermarket or the hardware store,” Murphy said. “I don’t know how we can expect workers to be able to tell who is vaccinated from who isn’t. And, it is unfair to put the burden on business owners and frontline employees to police every patron.”
Over the weekend, Murphy’s office sent out a statement from the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents 52,000 such workers in grocery stores and other retail outlets, supporting the governor’s decision to keep the indoor mask mandate in effect.
Murphy’s goals are to fully vaccinate 4.7 million adults by June 30, and so far nearly 3.7 million state adults have been fully vaccinated. More than 8 million New Jerseyans have gotten at least one dose.
Now with Pfizer receiving federal approval to vaccinate individuals between 12 and 15 years of age, the state is rushing to get the shot into the arms of hundreds of thousands of people in this age group.
Daily case counts and total hospitalizations of COVID-19 have cratered in recent weeks, reaching record-lows not seen since the fall before the onset of the second wave, indicating that this latest wave of the pandemic is firmly under control.
On Wednesday, the state is formally rolling back percentage-based capacities and other restrictions on businesses such as restaurants, personal service businesses and retail, as well as the outdoor gathering limit cap. Instead of capacity restrictions, businesses will still need to enforce 6-foot social distancing.
And the governor and several top lawmakers are hashing out a deal to end the 14-month public health emergency next month in exchange for legislation to secure key state funds for the COVID-19 vaccination efforts.