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PERSPECTIVE: Switching gears

The governor’s approach to fighting COVID-19 has worked, but it may be time to shift the focus

Gov. Phil Murphy has taken the first steps toward reopening the state’s economy, but he faces increasing pressure to pick up the pace. And it’s easy to understand why. With businesses shuttered around the state, unemployment hit record levels. There is genuine fear that the economy could be permanently damaged.

Let’s be clear: New Jerseyans generally approve of Murphy’s cautious approach. In a recent Monmouth University poll, nearly 80 percent of the respondents said the governor had done a good job in dealing with the crisis and his job approval stood at 71 percent. “Not only are Murphy’s approval numbers up, but more New Jerseyans are taking notice than during the first two years of his term,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “Leadership becomes much more relevant in a crisis and Murphy is getting solid reviews for his response.”

So Murphy is on safe ground as he pursues his go-slow strategy for restarting the economy. But there are rumblings of discontent. In separate conversations over the past couple of weeks, business leaders told NJBIZ that more economic activity should be permitted. Most cited elective surgery as an example. The prohibition on procedures like knee replacements has created a paradox – hospitals are as busy as they’ve ever been treating emergencies, but beginning to suffer financially because they can’t perform profitable operations. To his credit, Murphy is apparently working on this.

Gov. Phil Murphy listens to a question during his May 9, 2020, press conference at War Memorial in Trenton on the State’s response to COVID-19.

Gov. Phil Murphy listens to a question during his May 9, 2020, press conference at War Memorial in Trenton on the State’s response to COVID-19. – THOMAS COSTELLO, GANNETT

The growing skepticism extends to the Legislature. In an interview with NJBIZ editors and writers, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, implored the governor to move more quickly. Business owners, Sweeney said, are complaining that “the government is shutting us down for good.”

If that’s true and proprietors are blaming the state – not COVID-19 – for the hardships, Murphy could face long-term negative consequences. The broad support for his approach could start to erode and compliance with social distancing mandates might begin to fray. On May 9, state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-13th District, gave voice to that kind of resistance on Twitter.

“So…first time I’m going to suggest this…but it’s time. Everyone…defy the @GovMurphy! Go outside your house!!,” O’Scanlon tweeted. “It’s ok, you can trust me! Look South/Southeast…revel in that moon! We’re likely going to take this rebellion a few steps further next couple weeks. Get ready!” Two days later, he insisted that he wasn’t “calling for mass insurrection” but that if Murphy does not act soon, “the economic devastation we inflict will be irreversible.”

That’s a state senator, not a random protestor. The fact that O’Scanlon felt comfortable expressing such sentiments in a public forum suggests that opposition to Murphy’s approach may be simmering just below the surface, undetected by pollsters.

None of this should be taken as a suggestion that Murphy should forget about public health. He has a responsibility to protect New Jersey residents and he is taking it seriously, and he must continue to do so. But it may be time to adopt a different analytical framework.

The distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” businesses was useful in the early days of the pandemic response. But as the danger recedes, the thinking should change. Some “non-essential” businesses can reopen safely and they should be allowed to do so. If doctors and nurses can assure knee replacement patients that they can get the operation without contracting COVID-19, then hospitals should be allowed to perform elective surgery. And as Sweeney put it, if consumers can buy a household appliance at Home Depot, why can’t they buy one at a small retailer?

The state is facing a massive budget shortfall and Sweeney points out that taxes on auto sales represents a big source of revenue. Car dealerships are essentially big parking lots. Why can’t they be open?

Again, public health should remain the prime concern. But New Jerseyans have behaved responsibly up to now. Indeed, Murphy praises the efforts of residents literally every day. Sure, there are some “knuckleheads” out there who do stupid things. But by and large, the state’s citizens have taken it upon themselves to act in ways that “flatten the curve” and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed with critical cases. Surely they can be trusted to buy a toaster or a Toyota without infecting their neighbors.

Jeffrey Kanige

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