There are thousands of COVID-19 hospital patients and thousands of new cases recorded every day. Nationally and in New Jersey, the critical vaccine rollout has been marred by poor communication, conflicting information, shortage of doses and bureaucratic hurdles. And the highly transmissible variants of COVID-19 first detected in Brazil, South Africa and the U.K could overtake the U.S. as the dominant strains by the early spring. Public health experts argue that given these realities of the pandemic, early February would in the words of Gov. Phil Murphy this winter, not be the time to “let our guard down.”
Nonetheless, Murphy on Feb. 3 signed an order raising the capacity limit from 25% to 35% for indoor dining and other businesses, such as casinos, bars, gyms, nail and hair salons, theaters and performing arts venues.
“We have a more transmissible strain and we’re increasing capacity at a time when keeping things like windows and doors open is actually harder to do because of the weather,” cautioned Stephanie Silvera, a public health professor at Montclair State University who specializes in epidemiology. In the event that closures are shown to be the most effective means to curb the spread of these new variants, Silvera warned that “once things are open, it’s harder to close them back down.”
At his regular COVID-19 briefing in Trenton on Feb. 3, Murphy did not indicate whether he would reverse any reopenings in order to contain the spread of the new strains, beyond saying that the state was monitoring the spread of those strains. As of that day, state health officials identified 11 cases of the U.K. variant. Several of those cases were contracted by non-travelers, indicating the new strain now has a foothold in New Jersey.
“If we look at Great Britain as an example, where … they were one of the places one of those variants that we know about popped up, they ended up with this huge wave despite pretty significant restrictions,” said Leslie Kantor, a professor and chair of the Department of Urban-Global Public Health at the Rutgers Global Health Institute.
Murphy’s decision was praised by business groups, as well as several of the state’s Republican lawmakers who have long been critical of Murphy’s decisions to order business closures and enact restrictions on indoor capacity.
Michele Siekerka, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, called the announcement a “good step in the right direction.”
“Obviously, we would like to see greater capacity allowed than the 35% announced today,” she said in a statement. “This is what our Main Street businesses, like restaurants, gyms and personal care businesses, really need and what New Jersey needs to galvanize its economic recovery and to get people back to work.”
But Sylvia Twersky, a public health professor at The College of New Jersey, said fatalities and hospitalizations can take a far greater toll than shorter-term business closures. “[S]afely reopening needs to wait until the completed vaccination rates, especially among high risk groups, increase,” she said in an email.
Just what metrics would justify a more expansive reopening are hard to pinpoint. Murphy has often refused to announce a hard set of numbers that would trigger new actions.
“The greatest benchmark is the positivity rates, and as the year progresses, I think we will see fewer wide-sweeping restrictions, but rather applying measures in a more directed way,” Corey Hannah Basch, a professor and chair of the public health department at William Paterson University said. Data on new cases, infection rates, hospital capacity and “geographical factors” also matter, she added.
While those numbers are “going in the right direction,” the spread of COVID-19 at a restaurant is harder to control than other indoor businesses such as gyms and theaters, Kantor said. One issue is “the unknowns presented by the new variants” transmissibility, and the “huge variation in how easy it is to maintain all of the transmission prevention measures in different situations,” she explained.
“So gyms, for example, where people are masked, they’re socially distanced and there’s good ventilations, you can set up a pretty safe situation,” she added. “Restaurants, by their nature, people are taking off masks, they’re talking and then the indoor environment in the winter is particularly challenging because of lack of humidity.”
“There are things that restaurants can do like adding some humidity, having filters and good ventilation.”
But Amber D’Souza, an epidemiology professor at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that the measures taken to contain the spread of the virus so far will continue to have an impact in curbing the spread of COVID-19 and the potential new strain.
“The variants appear to have slightly increased transmissibility which increases risk of spread, but what drove the original waves we observed (people getting together in groups not physically distanced, whether at get-togethers in homes or other venues) remains the primary driver of spread and the primary determinant of future waves,” she said in an email.
POLITICS AND THE GAME
Murphy’s order comes at a politically tricky time: voters will head to the polls in November to decide whether he’s done a good enough job as governor to deserve another four years in office. “Restrictions are deliberate measures which strike a delicate balance between the health of the public and the health of the economy, and the two are intertwined. These decisions are inevitably going to frustrate one party or another, which can be expected,” said Basch.
But Patrick Murray, who heads the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said that most of the general public is not likely to judge the governor on the day-in, day-out updates on restaurant capacity restrictions. “If people say, ‘you haven’t opened things quickly enough’ and another says he’s opening them too quickly, the majority opinion is that on the whole, he’s doing a decent job,” Murray said in an interview.
“The day-to-day things that happen in Trenton have very limited impacts,” he continued. “It has to be some major event such as the onset of the pandemic itself and the governor’s initial reaction to it.”
Polling numbers for Murphy soared in March and onto the spring, when the pandemic began to take hold in New Jersey and across the nation.
Murphy’s order went into effect at 6 a.m. on Feb. 5, just days before the Super Bowl. The order lifted the 10 p.m. curfew on indoor dining, but allowed local governments to ban indoor dining after 8 p.m. Under the order, bar-side seating remains prohibited.
Marilou Halvorsen, the outgoing president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, told lawmakers that lifting the curfew for the Super Bowl was critical if public health officials wanted to draw people away from private indoor gatherings where COVID-19 mitigation practices are less likely to be followed.
And, many restaurant owners worried, the Super Bowl and its attendant festivities can go well past 10 p.m.
“If we could have a 12 o’clock curfew or go back to normal times, you’re not going to force people into their homes to have a Super Bowl Party,” she said at a Jan. 14 Assembly committee hearing. “We should be offering them a safe place to go, whether it’s a brewery to have a beer, whether it’s a restaurant where they have a place to sit, whether it’s a bar to watch the game.”
The governor denied on Feb. 3 that his decision had anything to do with the Super Bowl. “We’ve been noodling on the steps we’re taking today for at least a week to 10 days,” he said during his briefing.