Between the start of Memorial Day weekend through June 4, most of New Jersey’s COVID-19 business restrictions were rolled back for vaccinated people, allowing an almost complete return to pre-pandemic operations. The move was hailed by business groups, who contend that the rules constituted a drag on the state’s economy.
But public health experts remain cautious about whether the state is ready to fully celebrate. “Here are the important points to remember going into Memorial Day weekend … If you are not vaccinated, our guidance has not changed for you,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who heads the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a May 25 White House briefing. “You remain at risk of infection,” she added. “You still need to mask and take other precautions.”
Across the board, metrics used to gauge how the COVID-19 virus spreads have all hit lows since the earliest days of the pandemic. That includes daily cases, total hospitalizations, the positivity rate for tests and the rate of transmission, or how quickly the virus spreads among people.
But Stephanie Silvera, a public health professor and epidemiologist at Montclair State University, cautioned that even with low numbers, the state could still experience flare-ups. “[G]iven that less than half of the population is currently fully vaccinated, vaccination rates are slowing, and more people will be unmasked and without the same social distancing measures, localized outbreaks should be expected,” she said in an email.
But the alternative was too risky for the Gov. Phil Murphy, not necessarily in terms of public health but in regard to his own reelection campaign. All 120 seats in the state Legislature are also up for grabs this November. Micah Rasmussen, who heads the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said voters only have so much appetite to keep following COVID-19 restrictions like indoor mask mandates.
Murphy kept those in place for two weeks after the CDC announced that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear their masks indoors. “It was not sustainable … for New Jersey to create a bubble that was going to be different from the rest of the country, that was going to be different from the rest of the region,” Rasmussen said. “I think he probably pushed people’s patience to the limit.”
The governor himself contended when lifting the mask restrictions that the state was still in some degree of fight against the pandemic. “Are we out of the woods? I think I said this pretty clearly. We’re not, but we are in a meaningfully, dramatically different and better place,” the governor said on May 24.
He defended the decision to “put another couple of weeks on the clock” with indoor mask rules. “You look at 20,000 first shots a day, just to pick a number,” he added. “That’s 300,000 more first shots that we feel like we had a much higher probability of hitting than otherwise. Would some of those people have gotten vaccinated? I’m sure, but not all of them.”
Rasmussen suggested that for New Jersey to be “too outside of the norm” on restrictions created “risks of non-compliance.”
And he questioned just how much of a difference an extra two weeks with mask mandates might make when voters actually head to the polls in November.
To mask or not to mask
The reopenings are among the final relaxation on COVID-19 mandates for live venues, sports arenas, salons, malls, casinos, restaurants, gyms, retail and private offices, among others.
Corey Hannah Basch, a professor and chair of the public health department at William Paterson University, said she expects many businesses to enforce a blanket mandate that patrons and customers wear face coverings and social distance. “Relying on the honor system to wear masks when unvaccinated can be problematic, especially in a geographically dense area like [New Jersey],” she said in an email.
Michele Siekerka, the CEO of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said employers are within their right to require face coverings, be it a private office or an establishment that’s open to the public.
“[B]usinesses will continue to develop their own best practices, in addition to any requirements placed on them going forward as it relates to the use of masks, asking for proof of vaccinations,” she said in an email. “If a business owner is told by a customer that they haven’t gotten their vaccination and they decline that person entry, it’s up to the customer to go back to the car and grab a mask or just try somewhere else.”
Tom Bracken, who heads the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said he expects business owners may be more eager to scrap the mask requirement in the name of fully reopening and attracting customers. A business “on survival right now” is “probably not going to be as stern as somebody” in a more financially sound situation, he suggested. But as vaccinations increase, more patrons will ditch the mask and fewer businesses will require them.
“[P]eople who have been especially concerned about the virus will continue to wear masks when indoors in these environments, whether vaccinated or not, while those who have been fighting against mask wearing will quickly take them off or refuse to wear them, whether vaccinated or not,” Silvera said.
Relying on the honor system to wear masks when unvaccinated can be problematic, specially in a geographically dense area like [New Jersey].
– Corey Hannah Basch, William Paterson University
On May 26, Murphy said he would lift the requirement that business owners must enforce social distancing and mandate face coverings among vaccinated workers. And employers will no longer be required to keep as many employees as possible working remotely.
“While we are rescinding some requirements, that doesn’t mean we don’t expect you to be flexible and to work with employees — particularly those who are juggling family obligations such as childcare,” Murphy said. “We’re doing this to allow employers greater flexibility to bring employees back into in-person working environments.”
Siekerka said in a statement that employers need that kind of flexibility in the weeks and months to come “as our economy fully reopens.”
Despite the eased rules, some business owners have said they are having trouble hiring sufficient staff to resume normal operations. Business groups and conservative lawmakers contend that the shortage is caused by the $300 per week in federal supplemental unemployment relief, which critics contend allows people to stay home rather than return to work.
Data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics showed job gains stalling in April. That month, New Jersey added just 3,500 private-sector jobs, compared to 20,800 jobs in March. “Many small businesses still can’t hire help and it is time for New Jersey to join other states that have eliminated the additional $300 federal unemployment benefit that is keeping potential employees from rejoining the workforce,” said Eileen Kean, the New Jersey director of the National Federation of Independent Business, in a statement.
The Murphy administration has pushed back against that notion, as have labor rights groups. “I’ll quote Rob: There is zero evidence, study after study, report after report, that the enhanced benefits are keeping people out of the workforce,” Murphy said on May 26, referring to New Jersey Labor Commissioner Rob Asaro-Angelo. “Even if it’s possible it is somewhat of a contributor, there are a whole host of other factors: lack of child care or access to child care, schools not being fully back in person, people being flat-out concerned, afraid to get back into the mix,” Murphy said.
Kevin Brown, New Jersey state director for 32BJ SEIU, which represents thousands of service workers in the state, contended safety concerns are keeping people home. “Employers cut corners where they can, and while they may provide some PPE [personal protective equipment], it may not be enough or with adequate frequency,” he said in an email. “There is a labor shortage because some employers are not even paying standard wage, taking away benefits. People can’t work in those conditions.