THE LATEST: Murphy says ‘all options on table’ to fight N.J. COVID spread, including shutting indoor dining

Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday said the words New Jerseyans have been dreading for months: The second wave of the coronavirus is upon us.

“It is coming now,” Murphy said during his latest online COVID-19 briefing.

As for what’s next? That’s uncertain.

What Murphy didn’t say Thursday is just as notable. The governor stopped short of warning the surge could lead to a return of the statewide lockdown measures he instituted during the first wave in the spring — a move he has repeatedly resisted in recent months.

But hasn’t ruled that out completely. Asked if New Jersey — where more than 16,300 residents have died of COVID-19 — could see another round of restrictions as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hanukkah near, he said Thursday “all options are on the table.”

He repeated those remarks Friday when NJ Advance Media asked him about the chances of another stay-at-home order or widespread business closings.

“Everything’s on the table, but I hope the chances of that are still low,” Murphy said after an unrelated event in Piscataway, though he did say even “draconian” options are possible.

At least for now, state officials say they’re focused on taking a more localized approach, fighting flareups with increased testing, contact tracing, and public education — like they have with a recent outbreak in Lakewood and a current one in Newark.

“That combination feels like a hand we can play elsewhere,” Murphy said.

The governor on Friday also rejected the idea that the state’s outbreak has become “uncontrollable,” saying he believes “we’ll be able to still crack the back of this” by doing “basic stuff” like wearing masks and social distancing.

And officials have stressed the state is better prepared for the second wave than it was for the first, with more experience, better treatment for patients, and more hospital capacity.

“But my level of concern is high,” Murphy said Friday.

After being devastated in the spring, New Jersey saw coronavirus numbers drop significantly over the summer, and Murphy began gradually peeling back business closings and other restrictions — though more cautiously than neighboring states.

But in the last two weeks, New Jeresey has recorded 13 straight days of 1,000 new COVID-19 cases and its rolling seven-day average new cases has continued to escalate rapidly. As of Friday, New Jersey has averaged 1,609 new cases a day over the past week, up 44% from the average a week earlier.

The numbers are still far below April’s peak, when thousands of new cases and hundreds of new deaths were announced a day. And it’s hard to compare the recent increases to the spring because the state has doubled its testing capacity.

Still, the daily test positivity is also rising. New Jersey had a positivity rate of 6.54 on Sunday, the most recent day available. That’s the highest positivity rate since May 19.

Hospitalizations are also at a four-month high, a sign that more serious cases are increasing. And officials said deaths — which have hovered in the single digits for months — are expected to rise again.

Murphy said Thursday there are no immediate plans to increase 25% capacity limits on indoor dining at restaurants in New Jersey — something restaurant owners, residents, and lawmakers from both major parties have been lobbying for as the weather gets colder and outdoor dining becomes less feasible. That’s even though he has repeatedly said the state has found no evidence that indoor dining has led to any outbreaks.

“We are in a holding pattern,” Murphy said of indoor dining capacity. “I think it would be irresponsible to be otherwise right now.”

He then said Friday the state could shutter indoor dining “if we were to take a step back,” though he emphasized that is “something we absolutely do not want to do.”

The governor has also called on New Jerseyans not to travel, except for work, church, a doctor’s visit, or obtaining essentials. That’s even with the holidays getting closer.

“I mean, I hate to say that, but I think we have to sort of stick, particularly when we’re indoors, stick to your bubble, the people that you’ve been co-habitating with overwhelmingly — that’s your family,” Murphy said Wednesday during a television interview on Fox 5.

“I think we have to have a smaller scale down holiday season this year,” he added. “God willing, that that’s down payment on a more normal holiday season next year.”

And on Thursday, Murphy and state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli urged people not to take loved ones out of nursing homes to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner.

“I know that sounds callous, but we’re in a tough spot right now,” Murphy said.

Some large North Jersey cities have issued local restrictions in recent days to fight rising cases. Newark is mandating nonessential businesses to close by 8 p.m., while Hoboken and Paterson are ordering bars and restaurants to close by midnight.

Murphy said during interview Friday morning on CNN that he also wouldn’t rule out a statewide business curfew.

“If we had to,” the governor said. “I just hope we don’t have to. We’ve done it before. If we had to, we’d do it again. But please God, I hope we don’t have to get to that.”

Murphy continues to note the jump in cases appears to stem largely from gatherings inside private homes as opposed to public spaces as people spend more time inside because of the colder weather. And that, he says, is more difficult to regulate.

Officials have also touted the success they had using “scalpel” instead of “blunt-instrument” methods in Lakewood, which dealt with rising cases last month. The state set up 33 pop-up testing sites in Ocean County’s largest municipality and worked with local leaders on fighting the spread, Persichilli said.

That led to a “dramatic decline” in cases in Lakewood, the health commissioner said, going from a daily positivity rate of 26% in late September to 5.64% as of Friday.

Persichilli noted that the state is now working a similar strategy in Newark, where the positivity rate recently spiked to 11.6%. And she said the state is sending “hot-spot teams” to Atlantic, Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex Monmouth, and Union counties.

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Dr. Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health, agrees with this approach.

“There’s no way we can lock down again like we did in March and April,” Halkitis told NJ Advance Media. “What we’re gonna have to do is much more precision, tailored, surgical, localized closings.”

Hakitis said there’s a few reasons for that: First, “one size” of restrictions “doesn’t fit all.” Second, the tolerance level for a statewide lockdown after eight months of restrictions — and massive economic pain — “doesn’t exist.” Third, much of the recent spread has “less to do with restaurants and gyms and more to do with informal gatherings people are having.”

“Large-scale events should be closed down,” Halkitis said. “But it seems like the disease is spreading through communities in non-managed personal spaces. We have to be mindful.”

Halkitis still believes the spring lockdown was the right thing to do because officials had less knowledge about the virus then and it was “better to be safe than sorry.”

“Now we have a better sense,” he said.

Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiologist and professor at Montclair State University, said the biggest challenge will be large indoor family gatherings over the holidays.

“If you’re indoors, you need to be both social distancing and wearing a mask,” Silvera told NJ Advance Media. “It’s not either/or.”

She said it’s worth trying the scalpel approach but warned that shutdowns may be inevitable if people don’t practice self-control.

“If we want things open, we have to behave in a way that keeps them open,” Silvera said.

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Brent Johnson may be reached at bjohnson@njadvancemedia.com.

Matt Arco may be reached at marco@njadvancemedia.com.





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