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New Jersey, hit hard by the coronavirus, sees positive signs

Gov. Phil Murphy was faced with thousands of COVID-19 cases in April — but these days he is cautiously optimistic.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy visits an alternate care facility at New Bridge Bergen Medical Center in Paramus on April 22.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy visits an alternate care facility at New Bridge Bergen Medical Center in Paramus on April 22. Michael Karas / The Record via AP file

READINGTON, N.J. — March 4 had been circled on New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy's calendar for weeks. It was surgery day, to remove a cancerous tumor that had developed on one of his kidneys. The plans were set: Murphy, a Democrat, was to have the surgery, then recover at home for a few weeks and build up strength. Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver would step in as acting governor, temporarily handling the day-to-day responsibilities of the Garden State's top office.

The operation went as planned, but the leave never happened. On March 4, with Murphy recovering from his procedure, the first positive case of the coronavirus was confirmed in New Jersey. Doctors had advised rest, but Murphy continued to work, and he held his first in-person news briefing about COVID-19 just nine days after the operation, when the state had recorded 50 total cases.

Over the next two months, COVID-19 cases and deaths in the state rose rapidly. Throughout April, New Jersey reported more than 3,000 new coronavirus cases almost every day. Hospitals were nearing capacity. Seventeen bodies were found piled into one nursing home's morgue; other retirement communities reported mounting lists of casualties. The state's economy ground to a virtual halt, and the unemployment rate jumped to 15.3 percent. So far, more than 13,000 people have died because of complications of COVID-19 in New Jersey, the second-highest death toll in the country, behind only New York's.

Murphy led the team working to combat the rapid spread of the virus hand in hand with the state Health Department and other public health experts, holding more than 80 news briefings.

His early reviews weren't universally positive. In April and May, hundreds across the state took part in "ReOpen NJ" protests, angry at the governor for his extended closing of nonessential retail businesses. Crowds made it clear that they were desperate for paychecks; meanwhile, Murphy went on cable news talk shows, telling CNN on May 25 that protests weren't swaying his decision-making.

Like many COVID-19-related protests across the country, New Jersey's broke down along partisan lines. Some business owners defied the governor's orders. At Atilis Gym in Bellmawr, owners opened and allowed customers inside in mid-May. The Health Department shut them down soon after they made a Fox News appearance. (Murphy has yet to fully reopen gyms.)

But as dire as New Jersey looked in the spring, with the death toll mounting and anger over gyms and hair salons and restaurants spiraling, Murphy's efforts as July begins are being looked at through a new lens. The state looks as though it might offer a model for wrestling with the virus and getting it under control. Two weeks have passed without a day seeing more than 600 new cases. Meanwhile, more than half the country is experiencing record numbers of positive cases and hospitalizations.

Advisers to Murphy credit the early implementation of a stay-at-home order March 21 as key to having flattened the curve of new COVID-19 cases. The state implemented stringent requirements just behind similar orders issued in California and Illinois. (The state Health Department declined to make officials available for comment.)

Murphy's order closed all nonessential retail businesses and places of worship and canceled all planned gatherings like weddings, in-person services and parties.

"From day one, we've made a commitment to be guided by the facts and take any action necessary to protect the health and safety of New Jersey's 9 million residents," Murphy said when he announced the order. "We know the virus spreads through person-to person contact, and the best way to prevent further exposure is to limit our public interactions to only the most essential purposes."

Shoppers walk around Garden State Plaza mall in Paramus, N.J., June 29, 2020.
Shoppers at Garden State Plaza mall in Paramus, N.J., on Monday as the state's indoor shopping malls reopened.Seth Wenig / AP file

The governor consulted experts from around the state and on both sides of the political spectrum about how to handle the crisis and about best practices for reopening the economy, aides said. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who was commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration earlier in the Trump administration; Andy Slavitt, health care adviser to President Barack Obama; and Ben Bernanke, former chair of the Federal Reserve, were among those tapped to provide knowledge and advice.

But Murphy admitted in an interview that the state's response hasn't been without flaws.

"Has it been perfect? No. No one's been perfect," Murphy said. "But we have tried as best we could not to be swayed by the enormous emotions that have swirled around this."

Murphy pointed to one of the state's worst outcome locations: long-term care facilities, where more than 6,000 residents and staff members have died at 557 locations with COVID-19 cases, according to state data. In late spring, Murphy ordered an outside firm, Manatt Health, to investigate what went wrong in the facilities. The firm conducted remote interviews across the state.

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Those on the front lines in the long-term care facilities find Murphy's comments that "no one's been perfect" to be an understatement. "The directives we received from the governor and the Department of Health were changing almost daily," a long-term care employee in Hunterdon County said on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Between constantly changing personal protective equipment regulations and patient isolation recommendations, the employee said, it was difficult to keep track day to day.

On top of that, when the coronavirus began to sweep through the employee's long-term care facility, some staff members would stop showing up to work, the employee said — not because they were sick but because they had quit, finding the risk to them and their families too great. That put long-term care facilities across the state at an additional disadvantage when COVID-19 hit an individual facility hard. "In the beginning, we had so much death that you couldn't keep up with it," the employee said.

The first week of June, Manatt Health released recommendations for responses and legislation, which Murphy said he plans to work to get passed and signed into law, including provisions to implement previously nonexistent emergency preparedness plans and to deal with near-term staffing shortages.

Murphy said that throughout the crisis, he has been trying to put partisanship aside and not to politicize science.

"Some have allowed face coverings to be political," he said. "We are avoiding that like the plague."

Murphy and his team have imposed a requirement, based on recommendations from the state's Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for face coverings to be worn in all public indoor locations across the state, and they have recommended that they be worn outdoors, as well.

Murphy has also had a very public relationship with President Donald Trump and the White House throughout the pandemic. Along with weekly calls that he and the rest of the nation's governors participate in, Murphy traveled to Washington for an Oval Office meeting in April and dined with the president at Trump's private golf course in Bedminster on June 12. Trump tweeted that night that the two talked about "many things, including the opening of the beautiful Garden State, getting people back to work…"

"With whatever political differences we have — and there are many — I'd say, to our credit and to the president and his team's credit, they parked them at the door," Murphy said. "We've focused in on the things that have been mission critical."

Among the "mission critical" issues are personal protective equipment, ventilators and testing capabilities, all of which Murphy said the country was caught "flat-footed" on.

New Jersey bought 500 ventilators in preparation for a surge in late April, when it had the second most COVID-19 cases and deaths in the country.

Henry Raymond, associate director for public health at Rutgers University's new Center for COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness, offered an assessment about what the rest of the country can learn from New Jersey.

"In the absence of a vaccine, all we have is masks, social distancing and contact tracing," he said. "I think it will become normal that people wear masks. I think it will become normal that people stay socially distant. It will become normal that we minimize the capacity of venues. I think that until we have a tried-and-true sort of vaccine situation, that's going to be the new normal."

Raymond was referring to what's being called a contact tracing task force, which New Jersey has invested significant time and money in setting up. It is an ambitious effort to triage and track coronavirus clusters to alert those who may have come in contact with someone who later tested positive for COVID-19. The tracers, called the Community Contact Tracing Corps, are being trained by experts at Rutgers' School of Public Health and paid by the state.

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While Murphy and others hope it's a way to stop further spread of the virus, it's unclear how effective the venture could be, especially as businesses begin to open up and people spend more time outdoors and in public this summer.

Either way, the so-called new normal has been difficult for small-business owners to adjust to, even as the state slowly allows them to begin opening up.

"It was three months of hell," said Jackie Ewing, owner of Armadillo Ltd., a tourist-oriented gift shop in the shore town of Avalon. "To say that it's stressful is sort of an understatement. Where am I going forward, am I going to have a business? That's a question a lot of us are facing."

The Jersey shore, which accounts for about half the state's annual revenue, has been where mask-wearing and social distancing are hard to find. Viral videos of packed outdoor bars caught officials by surprise.

"To see ... the boardwalks and those large crowds that are not socially distancing and no facial coverings gives us a tremendous cause for concern," Col. Patrick Callahan, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, told reporters.

As New Jersey continues to reopen, other states are beginning to shut down for a second time. Murphy, along with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, issued travel advisories on June 24 and again on June 29 warning visitors from 16 states with high rates of the coronavirus that they will be asked to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in the tri-state area.

Although the signs of decreased spread are good news for New Jerseyans, officials are clear that it's no time to declare victory. "People ask me all the time, are you prepared to pause? Are you prepared to go back? I mean, I hope we don't, but if we have to, we will, and we reserve the right to do that," Murphy said.

Murphy said he has been "extra careful" to take personal precautions against COVID-19 because of his March procedure. And he has already modulated the state's slow reopening, deciding this week to halt plans to restart indoor dining.

"There is no reason to be a knucklehead," Murphy said at a briefing last week. "Keep your distances. Wear your masks. Be smart and courteous — the world just isn't about you."