N.J. to lower indoor, outdoor gathering limits

N.J. to lower indoor, outdoor gathering limits

N.J. to lower indoor, outdoor gathering limits after record-setting weekend of COVID-19cases, Murphy says

New Jersey is lowering the number of people allowed at both indoor and outdoor gatherings in an effort to fight the surging second wave of COVID-19, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday morning, after the state set back-to-back record days for new coronavirus cases over the weekend.

The limit for indoor gatherings will be dropped from 25 to 10 people, with some exceptions, and outdoor gatherings from 500 to 150 people — Murphy’s second tightening of restrictions in recent weeks as cases rise.

The new indoor limits take effect 6 a.m. Tuesday and the new outdoor limits 6 a.m. next Monday, Nov. 23., under an executive order Murphy signed.

The move has the potential to disrupt Thanksgiving, which is 11 days away, and other winter holidays that are approaching. But Murphy warned the pandemic has “gotten worse, and it’s gonna get worse.”

“So we’ve got to be honest with folks,” he said during a morning appearance on MSNBC. “Particularly with cold weather … with the holidays, this is going to get worse. Please God, it doesn’t get to the levels that we saw in the spring.”

The change does not affect the current 25% capacity limits on indoor dining in the state. Legislative and judicial sessions will also be exempt.

Plus, current indoor limits on weddings, funerals, movie theaters, performances, religious services, and political activities — up to 25% of a venue’s capacity, with a maximum of 150 people — will remain, Murphy said.

Outdoor weddings, funerals, religious services, and political activities will also have no limit.

But the limits do apply to house parties and other indoor gatherings, such as holiday dinners and events. It will also significantly limit the number of spectators allowed at indoor and outdoor youth and high school sporting events and practices. Crowds at indoor college and pro sporting events will be capped at 10 and outdoor events at 150. And the audiences at outdoor concerts and performances will be limited to 150.

“We think those are steps, coupled with some of the other steps we’ve taken, which will hopefully begin to shave these numbers down,” Murphy said. “This is a lot of fatigue, it’s a lot of private-setting transmission. Particularly with the holidays coming up, we’ve got to plead with people to not let their hair down, to be vigilant, social distance, face coverings, the basic stuff.”

Murphy said he’s aware this will cause some people to “readjust” their Thanksgiving plans.

“And I understand why there might be frustration with this step,” he said Monday afternoon at his latest coronavirus briefing in Trenton. “But as we have been saying for weeks, this will not be a normal Thanksgiving. It’s not a normal school year. … It wasn’t a normal Halloween. It won’t be a normal Hanukkah or Christmas. And 2020 won’t be normal, period.”

Murphy said the state is urging people to keep Thanksgiving as small as possible “because we know that indoor gatherings in homes are particularly dangerous places for COVID to spread.

“And the smaller the gathering is, the less likely it is that someone is infected and puts their loved ones at risk,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

Murphy cited a number of causes for the increases spread, including fatigue over restrictions, private gatherings such as Halloween parties, bartenders infecting others, and outbreaks related to activities before and after sporting events, such as pizza parties.

The executive order says that about 13% of all outbreaks in New Jersey between March 20 through Nov. 1 sprung from private gatherings.

Murphy has repeatedly said it’s difficult to make sure orders are being followed inside a private residence. But he said Monday authorities will do “everything we can to enforce compliance.” It’s unclear what penalties people could face.

Murphy did say venues that violate the orders could have their liquor licensed taken away or be closed altogether.

The order comes after New York and Connecticut issued similar 10-person limits on private indoor gatherings in recent days.

Meanwhile, Murphy left open the possibility of installing another statewide lockdown in New Jersey like he did during the first wave in March.

“Do we reserve the right to shut everything down? Sadly, we have to with these numbers,” he said.

New Jersey reported 8,935 cases more COVID-19 cases over the weekend — 4,395 on Saturday and another 4,540 on Sunday.

Both of those figures broke records — but with a caveat. The state’s testing capacity in the spring was about 4,000 tests a daily, while current daily testing ranges from between 15,000 to 55,000 a day, according to the state Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard. That means there were likely many more cases during the first wave that went undetected.

The state’s current reports, however, do not include rapid tests. State health officials estimated that including rapid tests could push the new case reports 10 to 20% higher.

There were also 2,115 patients hospitalized in New Jersey with either confirmed or suspected cases as of Sunday night — much lower than the 8,300 patients during the spring peak.

But hospitalizations and daily percent positivity are steadily climbing, and officials warn deaths — which so far have not risen at the rate they did in the spring — are likely to increase.

“We have a lot more capacity than we had in the spring,” Murphy said of hospitals. “We know a lot more about this virus than we did in the spring. But the numbers are clearly going in the wrong direction.”

The state has instituted a few other restrictions in recent days to help fight the spread. New Jersey bars and restaurants in the state are now required to close indoor dining between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. each day. Plus, the governor has given local governments the choice to institute 8 p.m. business closings if they want. And all indoor interstate organized sports up to the high school level will be off-limits under the new rules.

Murphy did say schools continue to be a positive point during the pandemic, with 52 cases of in-school transmission in the state out of about 3,000 buildings.

Asked if the state will close schools if numbers reach a certain level, the governor said: “I hope not. Our school experience has actually been a good one so far.”

“Schools, by the way, are a good example of when you prepare properly, you socially distance, you put barriers up, you mandate masking,” he said on WPIX. “That’s the reason why we’re seeing a low level of transmission in schools — because they’re doing it the right way.”

Meanwhile, Murphy met with governors of four neighboring states Sunday to discuss possibly coordinating new restrictions. They did not reveal any new policies Sunday night, but Murphy said there could soon be an announcement on testing and quarantine policies related to college students returning home from college for the holidays.

“We’re gonna try to do as much as we can regionally,” Murphy said during a separate morning interview on Fox 29. “Our steps may not be exactly the same. But the overall thematic approach is very consistent across the states.”

On a positive note, Moderna announced its coronavirus vaccine appears to be 94.5% effective. That comes a week after competitor Pfizer Inc. announced its own COVID-19 vaccine appears to be about 90% effective. Federal officials hope to have some rollout of vaccines in the new year.

“The vaccine news is really good,” Murphy said. That’s great. But it’s not here yet. We’re in a heck of a fight. This thing is surging, and we’ve got to stay strong.”

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

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