NJ governor: State will ‘tighten the screws’ on social distancing this weekend

Phil Murphy
Gov. Phil Murphy answers questions at his daily press briefing on Friday.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said at a press briefing on Friday afternoon that the state will “tighten the screws” on social distancing to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, possibly as early as Saturday night.

Murphy said non-essential businesses likely will be closed at some point this weekend, but he did not define what is considered a non-essential business. “We don’t have a crisp definition yet,” he said Friday. “We’re still working that out.”

An announcement about new measures to enforce social distancing is expected at noon on Saturday.

The National Guard has been activated to help keep order in the state.

Murphy also mentioned on Friday that distance learning for schools will be extended beyond March, but the date has not been determined yet, Murphy said.

Bergen County in the northeastern part of the state has more confirmed cases than any other county in New Jersey, with 249 confirmed cases. At the press briefing Friday, Jim Tedesco, the county executive in Bergen County, became emotional as he talked about the toll the coronavirus has taken on his county, including four deaths. “We need to do everything we can to turn that screw down and keep people home,” he said.

Murphy noted that New Jersey ranks fourth in the country behind New York, California, and Washington for the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the state. He said the peak in cases is likely many weeks away. Salem County was the only New Jersey County not to have a confirmed coronavirus case as of Friday. As of the afternoon press briefing, all but three Mercer County towns had cases.

“We’ve been as aggressive as any American state, and we’re about to get more aggressive,” Murphy said. “The anecdotal evidence is that people aren’t out there. NJ Transit ridership is down 90 percent. We can flatten the curve in fewer weeks rather than more weeks if we crack back. The curve will not be as high and it will be spread out. The same number of people may get infected, but it will be more balanced.”

Officials hope that enacting stronger social distancing measures will help slow the spread of the coronavirus and keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. The peak of cases is expected to be several weeks away, Murphy said. Penn Medicine is using a predictive modeling tool to help officials calculate when the surge will occur.  

“We will see more cases in the coming weeks — a lot more cases. As we see more cases, especially among nursing home residents and those with underlying medical conditions, the stresses on our healthcare system will build exponentially,” New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said. “I’m very concerned about that. That’s why we are continiuing to explore unused spaces of hospitals and longterm care facilities. and to look at standing up new hospitals.”

Persichilli said residents should only go out if they have a critical need. She recommended that people living in the same household don’t share items like dishes, utensils, or towels.

“I want to make it clear — we expect a surge in cases that will stress the healthcare system significantly,” she said.

Officials have been working to get more personal protection supplies, including masks, for healthcare workers, and to create more capacity in terms of hospital beds across the state. Murphy said the state is “turning over every stone” to try to get more equipment.

Wings of existing facilities that had been closed are being reopened where possible, and some former hospitals are being reopened. The first hospital to be reopened is in Woodbury. The facility, which will offer another 300 hospital beds, is expected to be up and running in three to four weeks after it receives a thorough cleaning. A building in Plainfield with a gutted interior is being converted into a hospital and will provide an additional 200 beds when it is ready to open in four or five weeks, Persichilli said.

Officials reported Friday that the state confirmed 155 more positive coronavirus cases for the day, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 890. Two more New Jersey residents died, bringing the total number of deaths in the state to 11. One man was a 37-year-old resident of Essex County. The other man was a 52-year-old resident of Bergen County.

Nine of the 11 people who have died in the state had comorbid conditions, Persichilli said on Friday at the briefing. Most of them had diabetes, the majority were obese, and several had cardiovascular disease. Seven were men and four were women. Four of the deaths were in longterm care facilities in the state.  

The state has restricted access to longterm care facilities and nursing homes in recent days, among other measures at those facilities, and is halting adult daycare centers in all counties to protect the patients and workers.