New Jersey’s Reopening Hits Setback With Indoor Crowd Limit Slashed

New Jersey lowered its indoor crowd limit 75% to 25 people, setting back the most densely populated state’s reopening and raising the potential for other restrictions just a month before public schools are to reopen.

Governor Phil Murphy also mandated face coverings for 1.37 million pupils on school grounds, ratcheting up what had been a recommendation.

The steps were necessary, Murphy said at a Trenton news conference, because the novel coronavirus transmission rate hit 1.48, above the benchmark of 1 that shows the disease is spreading. The rate was down slightly from 1.49 a day earlier, but up from 0.87 a month ago. Murphy said he fears the figure will climb, in part because of well-publicized “underground” house parties last month that exceeded his gathering limits and resulted in almost 100 positive cases.

“I am exercising this option, which I had hoped not to have to take, in pulling back on such gatherings,” he said. “This tightening caps house parties at 25 people — period.” It will be left to local police to enforce the new order, he said.

Outdoors, a crowd maximum of 500 remains in effect. A cap of 100, or 25% of a room’s capacity, still will apply to indoor weddings, funerals and memorial services, and faith-based and political functions.

The rollback is particularly vexing because Murphy, a Democrat, had taken pains to raise the limit gradually since March, when such gatherings were restricted to 10 people. As hospitalizations and cases declined, Murphy over a series of weeks pushed up the indoor cap to 25, then 50, then 100, even as Republican lawmakers called for a swifter reopening.

The state has recorded a total 15,846 deaths with a lab-tested or probable link to coronavirus. In the last 24 hours, 738 coronavirus patients were hospitalized, with 144 in intensive-care units and 49 relying on ventilators. Murphy called those figures “strongly positive.” At the virus’ height in New Jersey, more than 8,000 people were hospitalized.

Still, Murphy warned on Friday that the state was “standing in a very dangerous place” after an abrupt turnaround on progress.

School districts, set to open classrooms for the first time since March for the school year that starts in early September, are forming plans to educate in person and remotely. The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said last month that it doesn’t have enough time to prepare for safe operations.

Murphy said students and staff now will be required to wear face coverings unless they are prevented by disability or health condition.

“Our numbers have deteriorated and a school isn’t immune to the environment around it,” Murphy said.

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