While the Senate president gave Gov. Phil Murphy high marks for how he’s handled the state’s response so far to the COVID-19 pandemic, that patience now appears to be running thin.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, warned on Tuesday that the administration was going far too slow on lifting many of the tight restrictions initially put in place to stop the spread of the virus – slower than neighboring states.
And employers, worried that “the government is shutting down our businesses for good,” are the ones who could pay the price.
Representatives from the governor’s office could not be reached for comment.
While hospitalizations, new cases and fatalities are all down, the lockdown has paused virtually all commerce in the state, leading to record-high unemployment and economic conditions not seen since the Great Depression.
The Senate President suggested that the state roll back restrictions on many businesses immediately, so long as they can adhere to the guidelines set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“CDC guidelines are what is essential and what is needed to be given to follow and then give the owners and businesses the ability to decide whether they can reopen,” Sweeney said in an hour-long interview with NJBIZ.
New Jersey has been practically in a state of lockdown since mid-March in a bid to halt the spread of the virus. That’s meant a ban on public gatherings and non-essential travel, and the closure of any kind of business where groups of people can congregate. Bars and sit-down restaurants, concerts and sporting events, barbershops and nail salons, malls, casinos and theaters all must remain closed. Face coverings must be worn at any “essential businesses,” such as grocery stores.
“If you tell a restaurant owner they can have 50 percent capacity, that’s not a business model, that’s not going to work with a lot of restaurant owners,” he added. “I would rather the business owner make the decision not to open up, than the government shutting you down.”
Those guidelines, which were last updated on May 6, aim to provide some direction for how employers can safely keep their businesses open during the COVID-19 pandemic, which in New Jersey has infected more than 140,000 residents and claimed nearly 10,000 lives.
Employers, for example, should require face coverings and limit overall capacity, the guidelines suggest. And they should conduct daily health checks, hazard assessments of the workplace, and enforce strict social distancing policies.
“You’ve got to look at it as a region. When they did that regional consortium, I thought that was a brilliant move,” he said. “But if everyone’s going to operate under their own guidance, that’s not a consortium, that’s ‘you’re on your own’.”
Car sales – a major point of sales tax for the state – should be allowed by appointment only. Elective surgeries – a major and now-lacking source of revenue for the state’s private health care industry – should be allowed to resume, as should most construction, stressed Sweeney.
Slowing down the process
And a 21-member commission and council with hundreds of members, all to advise the governor on the order in which restrictions can be lifted, and how to kickstart the state’s economy, just slows things down.
“When are they going to give us answers, when do we get a report? Three-hundred people, you think that moves quickly?” Sweeney said. “All these committees are just slowing the process down. The guidance is already there, the federal government has already given the guidance.”
“There’s never going to be enough testing, never going to be enough. I don’t care what they say, they’re making the numbers up.”
“We got people dying every day, unfortunately,” Sweeney continued. “But if you’re waiting for zero deaths that’s never coming.”
Murphy rolled back restrictions on parks and golf courses earlier in May and expects to have “hard dates” announced this week on when further restrictions would be lifted. And, he plans to put out some guidelines for how local governments can reopen their beaches come Memorial Day Weekend.
“I don’t need to know a week from now you might give me guidance. If you’re thinking about it, give it to me,” Sweeney responded.
The governor maintained that the reopening would need to be a statewide process, otherwise, certain counties where restrictions are lighter would be swamped by residents from areas in the state still harder hit by the virus.
“People can drive to Delaware now and get a haircut. Where I live, I can go to Philadelphia and get elective surgery. I have a car, which means I can drive wherever I want,” the Senate president responded.
“I understand the governor wanting to open up the state at once, but here’s the problem: Everything’s opening up around us, so how do you stop somebody from going to Connecticut, or to Rhode Island?”
More from NJBIZ‘s sit down with Senate President Sweeney:
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 4:58 p.m. EST on May 13, 2020 to include an additional quote from Senate President Steve Sweeney.