Gov. Phil Murphy announced May 24 he is lifting the state’s indoor mask mandate and 6-foot social distancing requirement for fully vaccinated residents effective May 28, at the start of the Memorial Day weekend and the unofficial start of the summer season.
The move makes New Jersey among the last states in the nation to lift the mandate, putting the Garden State in line with guidelines rolled out earlier this month by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which say that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear a mask indoors.
It means that patrons can enter businesses such as restaurants and retailers without needing a face covering for the first time in nearly 15 months. Businesses can still require their employees and patrons to wear masks.
The relaxed move comes as the state has just over a month to reach the governor’s target of fully vaccinating 4.7 million New Jersey adults, plus many more between the ages of 12 and 15. Currently, there are roughly 3.9 million people in the state fully vaccinated.
“To be sure, if you feel more comfortable wearing your facemask when shopping or waiting for your table at a restaurant, by all means, you may continue to do so,” the governor said at his daily COVID-19 press briefing on Monday.
And it means that businesses such as restaurants, retail, personal care businesses, gyms, amusement parks, malls and casinos can fully reopen. The governor initially required businesses to simply enforce a 6-foot social distancing requirement, but many businesses with smaller square-footage said this meant they could not fully reopen.
Starting this Friday, dance floors at bars and restaurants can also resume operations, while patrons at those establishments will no longer need to remain seated while ordering.
The 30% capacity on large indoor venues – those with at least 1,000 seats – is also being lifted, effective June 4.
“If the [New Jersey] Devils had a game on June 4, could they sell out and the answer is yes,” Murphy said. The NJ Devils are based out of Prudential Center in Newark.
Masking will still be required for places with children, such as summer camps, pre-schools, and elementary and middle schools. They’ll be required on public transit centers including airports and train stations, state offices such as the Motor Vehicle Commission, homeless shelters and hospitals, and other health care settings.
Several large retail chains – like Target, Walmart, Starbucks and Trader Joes – said they would not require face coverings in states that lifted the ban. Many businesses NJBIZ interviewed said they would likely follow suit once the mandate is lifted.
Murphy had been initially resistant to lifting the mask mandate, saying that businesses and their staff should not be forced to determine who is and is not vaccinated and then police mask usage. He warned a week ago on May 17 that despite vaccination rates and weeks of drops in daily cases and hospitalizations, the state was “not out of the woods yet” and “not there yet” in terms of the current state of the pandemic.
“We reject putting that store employee in the position of judge and jury,” Murphy said. “They have no way of knowing.”
“If you’re not vaccinated, we expect you to have a higher standard of care … We’re not going to put the workers in harm’s way… What we’re very clearly asking folks is for personal responsibility, if you’re not vaccinated, we ask you to do the right thing,” he added.
But without a vaccine requirement – a passport or some means to verify someone’s vaccination status – public health experts and labor rights groups said that many patrons will not wear the mask and simply lie when asked if they’ve gotten the vaccine.
“Sadly, I suspect there’ll be a minority of people who will do that,” the governor said.
Parimal Garg, the governor’s chief counsel, said at the briefing that businesses could require proof of vaccination – like a vaccine card – as a condition of entry.
But Murphy lambasted the CDC for its guidance, which on May 24 he said “took all of us by surprise” and “caused confusion across the country.”
“We didn’t act in a knee-jerk fashion,” he said. “I do not, for one minute, regret us taking these extra two weeks to ensure that the dramatic decreases we had been seeing in both cases and hospitalizations would continue.”
A total of 15 days will have passed between the CDC announcement and the effective date for Murphy’s new order.
“If these past two weeks have pushed one more person to get vaccinated, or saved one extra person from hospitalization or death, then we are all better off,” he said.
The governor admitted that New Jersey could not be in a position where its neighbors did not have the mask mandate while New Jersey did not have such a requirement. “You run the risk that everybody’s going out to dinner doesn’t want to … wear a mask, is going to be going shopping across the Delaware or the Hudson [Rivers],” Murphy said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 2:50 p.m. EST on May 24, 2021, to include additional remarks from Gov. Phil Murphy and to include a June 4 effective date for the lift on capacity restrictions for large indoor venues.