When the COVID-19 pandemic emergency order officially ended in New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy ceremoniously released his authority to the state legislature with a few conditions. One of those conditions was that if the COVID-19 rate of transmission rose above 1, he would be authorized to implement a new face mask mandate and bring back forced closures.
Now, the state is dangerously close to that target allotted to the governor. On Monday, Murphy could have the legal authority to mandate face masks and enforce social distancing once again. This week the rate of transmission rose from .93 earlier this week to .97 on Friday.
When Phil Murphy ended his emergency orders in June, the rate of transmission was just .53. Now, Murphy blames the unvaccinated masses in New Jersey and the rise of the Delta variant in the state. That variant today accounts for 15% of all new COVID-19 cases according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.
If the rate of transmissions rises above 1 during the upcoming Fourth of July weekend, Murphy will have the full authority to reinstate his mask mandate, business closures, bans on indoor activities, and enforcement of social distance rules.
The bill, signed into law this spring by Democrats gives Governor Murphy the powers of a health emergency without having to declare a health emergency. A5820 is a bill that allows the governor to return to pandemic protocols without the need for legislative approval.
“The most recent executive order containing general coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) mitigation measures regarding face coverings, social distancing, and gatherings prior to the effective date of this act, and this executive order shall not be more restrictive than the recommendations provided in the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on social distancing and face coverings in response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, unless a substantial increase in hospitalizations, substantially increased spot positivity, or rate of transmission above 1 necessitates a modification that would be more restrictive,” the bill reads.
Murphy has been stressing the importance of vaccinations and the rise of the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus in recent meetings. Under A5820, he would have legal authority on Monday to reinstate his COVID-19 lockdown measures if the rate of transmission goes above 1. He could use the new mask mandate as a tool to force the unvaccinated residents of the state to get vaccinated.
On Wednesday, New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli foreshadowed a possible return to a state mask mandate, urging both the vaccinated and unvaccinated to wear face masks during the coming holiday weekend.
“Mask wearing, particularly by unvaccinated, should be encouraged, and physical distancing of at least six feet should be maintained from those who don’t live with you. Unvaccinated individuals are encouraged to wear masks in most indoor situations,” Persichilli said on Wednesday. “While fully vaccinated individuals are encouraged to resume normal activities, they should not be discouraged from wearing a mask for higher-risk activities such as being in a crowded indoor location. As with any respiratory virus, it’s vital to practice good hand hygiene. Washing your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds, using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol, and avoid touching your eyes, your nose, and your mouth with unwashed hands. If you aren’t feeling well, please stay home.”
For the first time in weeks, Governor Murphy returned to pandemic style warnings of hand washing and mask wearing.
“We haven’t done this in a while. Do the basic stuff. That still matters. It certainly matters for COVID, but it matters for general public health, right? If you don’t feel well, take yourself off the field,” Murphy said. “We haven’t said that in a while, so I’ve just – seriously, don’t – and wash your hands with soap and water, and especially if you’re not vaccinated, you got to wear a mask and you got to be social distancing.”
Murphy said the reason the delta variant now accounts for 15% of New Jersey cases is that there is no longer a mask mandate. When asked why, Murphy said it was based on two factors, no masks and the unvaccinated.
“I think the big reason is our vaccination rates are as high as they are. You’re seeing it spike. I mean, this is like – this is not speculation; it’s correlated. If you look at under-vaccinated communities and states and caseloads, they are perfect – almost perfectly correlated. If you want to add anything to that – I assume vaccination rates are our friend here, right?”
“It’s overall caseload. It’s how many people are getting sick, positivity rates, rates of transmission, hospitalizations. That’s what we’ll,” Murphy said stopping short of saying he’ll return to the mask mandate.
“There’s a collection of metrics that we follow, not specific only to variants. Therefore, there’s not one data point that we have ever hung our hat on that this is – this will trigger a certain action. I hope we don’t have to go back. We would not have taken the steps we’ve taken with any expectation that we would have to go backward,” he said. “We’re the only state in America that has not lurched; in other words, taken a step and then pulled back from it. I hope that we can keep it that way. If we have to, we will, clearly. We’ll continue to monitor the data points that we’ve talked about every time we’ve been at this table for the past 16 months, and right now it’s hard to argue anything other than we are in really good shape, and we just hope it stays that way.”