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N.J. sees spike in COVID-19 cases as residents slack off on masks and social distancing

Cuomo slams Trump's coronavirus 'chaos,' WHO dashes new vaccine hopes, Birx feels wrath of Pelosi and prez
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy speaks during his daily coronavirus news conference in Trenton, N.J., on May 19, 2020.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy speaks during his daily coronavirus news conference in Trenton, N.J., on May 19, 2020.Chris Pedota / The Record via AP, Pool

Alarm bells went off in New Jersey on Monday as a state that appeared to have successfully flattened the coronavirus curve saw the number of new cases spike by 175 percent in the last two weeks, an NBC News analysis of the latest figures showed.

As of Monday morning, New Jersey had reported 185,537 confirmed cases and 15,836 deaths, according to the latest numbers. The state's rate of transmission had climbed back up to 1.48, equal to the levels in April when the pandemic was at its worst in the state.

From July 20 through Aug. 2, New Jersey logged 5,070 new cases and 134 deaths, the NBC News figures showed.

Gov. Phil Murphy responded Monday by tightening restrictions on the number of people who can gather at indoor venues or parties from 100 to 25.

"Limiting indoor gatherings to 25 people is a pretty meaningful step," Murphy, a Democrat, said. "We knew as we reopened we'd take on more risk."

The governor on Friday conceded that the state was “standing in a very dangerous place” and he placed the blame squarely on the “knuckleheads” who fail to follow the rules.

“Everyone who walks around refusing to wear a mask or who hosts a house party is directly contributing to these increases,” Murphy said. “This has to stop, and it has to stop now.”

While Murphy has threatened to tighten COVID-19 restrictions, he appeared to have few ways of enforcing a mask mandate or other safety requirements, other than hectoring people to comply with his directives.

But it isn't hard to find evidence that people in New Jersey aren't being as safe as they could be.

At popular outdoor venues like The Waterfront, in West Orange at the South Mountain Recreation Complex, dozens of strollers walking around the reservoir could be seen on Saturday afternoon ignoring signs to wear masks and follow trail directions, and there were no police officers or park workers in sight to set them straight. Nor did there appear to be anybody policing the packed playgrounds where mostly mask-less parents mingled with mostly mask-less children.

And while beaches up and down the Jersey Shore were requiring sunbathers to don masks to enter, once they hit the sand there did not appear to be much effort to make sure that the masks stayed on, or that visitors were social-distancing on the sand and in the surf.

Further, house parties in Jersey Shore towns like Middletown and on Long Beach Island that drew crowds of teenagers have been linked to dozens of new coronavirus cases in recent weeks. And state health officials were still awaiting the fallout from a massive house party at an Airbnb rental in the town of Jackson last month that drew some 700 people and resulted in three arrests when police shut it down.

New Jersey was one of the hardest-hit states early on in the pandemic, and Murphy was initially praised for taking decisive action. The governor was also one of the first to require masks to be worn outdoor at public venues.

New Jersey is not the only state to have slid back on the number of new cases. Hawaii has also seen a big spike, with a 156 percent increase in new cases over the past 14 days, according to the NBC News tally. But the numbers there are far less dire than New Jersey’s, with 2,219 total cases and 26 deaths.

In other developments:

  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the national COVID-19 response needs a "reset" starting with President Donald Trump. "I think he has to stand up and say what he didn't say six months ago," Cuomo said on MSNBC. "He has to say to the American people that Covid is serious, that we can't deny it, that it's not political. It's not going to go away magically." There was no immediate response from Trump. Critics say Trump, who waited until March 13 to declare a national emergency, has downplayed the danger of the pandemic from the start. As recently as last month, Trump said the pandemic would "just disappear." New York, which was once the nation's hot spot, has reported 423,045 cases and 33,541 deaths. But new cases over the last two weeks are down three percent over the two weeks before that, according to NBC News figures.
  • The World Health Organization poured cold water on hopes for developing a vaccine to counter COVID-19. “A number of vaccines are now in phase three clinical trials and we all hope to have a number of effective vaccines that can help prevent people from infection,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “However, there’s no silver bullet at the moment — and there might never be.” Trump has been saying for months that a vaccine was coming. And just last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a congressional committee that he was "cautiously optimistic" researchers will have honed in on a coronavirus vaccine by the end of the year.
  • A Roman Catholic pastor in Washington, D.C. who had urged his flock not to “cower in fear” of the coronavirus has tested positive. The city health department said hundreds of church staffers and parishioners who took part in church services between July 25 and 27 were exposed and should quarantine for two weeks. Monsignor Charles Pope of Holy Comforter St. Cyprian Catholic Church received the diagnosis after he was admitted to a hospital with a high fever on July 27, the Washington Post and other news outlets reported. Nine days earlier, Pope wrote in the National Catholic Register that “we as a nation and as a Church have succumbed to excessive fear” of COVID-19. “There is more to life than just not getting sick and not dying,” he wrote. Further, during a July 27 interview on the “Morning Glory” radio program, Pope dismissed worshippers who stayed away from the church to avoid getting infected as “lukewarm Catholics.”

  • Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, found herself under attack by both Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “I think the president has been spreading disinformation about the virus and she is his appointee so, I don’t have confidence there, no,” Pelosi said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” In trying to defend herself, Birx drew the ire of Trump after she said during a CNN interview Sunday that the pandemic was in a “new phase” and that it is “extraordinarily widespread” even in rural areas. Trump on Monday dismissed Birx' response as "pathetic." It was the first time Birx was publicly criticized by Trump, who has frequently gone after Fauci for contradicting the president's more positive spin on the progress of a pandemic that has wrecked the national economy and endangered his re-election chances in November.