Governor issues new restrictions for essential retail businesses, changes primary election date as NJ sees another record jump in COVID-19 related deaths

Governor Phil Murphy and Senator Corey Booker tour the Edison Field Medical Station at the NJ Convention and Exposition Center in Edison April 8. The center has been converted into a makeshift hospital to handle a possible overflow of patients due to the stress on healthcare facilities because of COVID-19.
Press pool photo by Chris Pedota of northjersey.com

Governor Phil Murphy announced Wednesday that another 275 residents of New Jersey have died as a result of complications from COVID-19, bringing the state’s death toll to 1,504 residents. He also issued three new executive orders in light of the need to enforce social distancing and the need for more emergency COVID-19 equipment supplies.

The state received positive COVID-19 test results from labs for another 3,088 residents on Wednesday, bringing the statewide total for positive cases to 47,437, officials said. The state received another 155 positive test results for Mercer County residents, bringing the county total of confirmed cases to 992. Nine more residents of Mercer County have died as a result of complications from COVID-19, bringing the county total to 28 deaths.

NJ Transit Conductor Joe Hansen
with his grandchildren.

Murphy said he was announcing new deaths “with the heaviest of hearts.” Deaths included Joe Hansen, 62, an NJ Transit conductor for the Raritan Valley line whose son, Brian Hansen, is also a mechanic for NJ Transit. Jerry Lynch, the founder of the Belmar St. Patrick’s Day parade and owner of Lynch’s Hotel, also died as a result of complications from COVID-19. Murphy noted that communities of color are paying a higher price in the state during the pandemic in terms of deaths.

He also cautioned that even though the rate at which COVID-19 transmission is increasing in the state is starting to slow down, the state still has two realities it cannot escape. “It is still increasing. We are not at any plateau. We need to continue to be absolutely vigilant,” he said, adding that the state needs to tighten restrictions now instead of loosening them.

“My job is the safety and security of the nine million folks who call this state home. Every decision we make, we make based on science, data, and facts,” Murphy said. “It’s a paradox. We are beginning to see the flattening of the curve, yet sadly fatalities continuee to spike. Sadly the fatalities we are announcing today are folks infected two or three weeks ago. The curve is still going up. Secondly, while it may be beginning to flatten, the fatalities are going up and will sadly continue to go up.”

He begged residents observing Passover beginning Wednesday night, those who will celebrate Easter on Sunday, and those who will observe Ramadan in a few weeks, to practice social distancing and celebrate the holidays at home with other household members only. “This is the first night of Passover. I cannot say this strongly enough. We cannot gather together. There cannot be large community seders or gatherings, either indoors or outdoors,” he said. “We will have to get creative to come together virtually so that we can gather together again someday soon in person.”

Murphy also cautioned that life in the state will not go back to normal all at once after the crisis is over.

“It is going to take time to reopen our state and our country in a systematic and careful way to protect against a boomerang of the coronavirus,” Murphy said. “If we open up too soon, I fear we are placing gasoline on the fire. This is not a situation where, when the lights go out and you go to the basement, you flip the main breaker and the whole house is powered up. We are going to have to go room by room, carefully and methodically, in a way that keeps us smart and safe. So I ask you again for your patience as we work together to flatten the curve and come down the other side, but also for the weeks that will undoubtedly follow as we carefully begin to get our state back open again. And we will get there.”

Three new executive orders

Murphy announced that he was issuing three more executive orders on Wednesday. The first order moves the primary elections in the state from Tuesday, June 2, to Tuesday, July 7. Delaying the primary by five weeks increases the likelihood that voting can be in person, Murphy said. If voting can’t be in person, the postponement also gives the state more time to implement an all-vote-by-mail election, he said.

“We must make sure our systems are able to handle that. The task becomes easier with extra time,” Murphy said. “Our democracy cannot be a casualty of COVID-19. We want to make sure every voter can vote without endangering their health or their safety.”

The second order shuts down all non-essential construction across the state, effective Friday. Exceptions include projects at hospitals and schools, transportation and utility projects, affordable housing projects, individual housing sites that can adhere to strict limits for the number of workers on site, and emergency repairs to safely secure construction sites. The order also adds extra restrictions for essential retail businesses like grocery stores in order to stop overcrowding and enforce social distancing. The number of customers in a store must be no more than half of the total capacity allowed. Customers and employees must wear face coverings in retails stores, and stores must provide special shopping hours for individuals who are at a higher risk of developing complications from COVID-19. Stores must also erect physical barriers between customers, cashiers, and baggers, and regularly sanitize areas used by employees.

Murphy said the restrictions must be followed throughout the state. No municipality or county can impose additional restrictions. He said the order also put greater protections in place for workers in warehouses and manufacturing facilities.

“We are not running out of food or other items. Period. Our supply chain is feeling the stress but it is holding strong,” Murphy said. “We are taking this step to protect both customers and essential workers. Ensuring social distancing may require changing the time you go to the store, but that’s a small price to pay to ensure the health of your community.”

His third executive order increases the weight limit for trucks on state highways and toll roads from 40 to 46 tons for trucks carrying COVID-19 relief supplies.

Strain in healthcare system continues

Officials made anoter plea for healthcare workers to bolster the ranks are hosptials in the state. The New Jersey Department of Health has an immediate need for chief nursing officers, chief medical officers, physicians, and respiratory therapists. The positions are paid. Experienced professionals can sign up at covid19.nj.gov/volunteer.

New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said her department is working to develop plans to help long-term care facilities in the state that are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks and shortages of staff and equipment. Officials are surveying all long-term care facilities regarding their ability to put residents on separate wings or floors and place residents in private rooms with private bathrooms. The state is also doing an inventory of protective equipment at the facilities and is surveying employee capacity and staffing plans. The state is requiring that residents of facilities be grouped in clusters depending on COVID-19 status, symptoms and other criteria to mitigate the spread of the virus. Facilities are also supposed to limit the movement of staff members between COVID-19 positive and negative floors or wings. Residents at facilities that can’t follow CDC guidelines will be transferred to COVID-19 positive facilities, Persichilli said.

At least 231 long-term care facilities in the state have at least one resident who has tested positive for COVID-19, and Persichilli said 48 of the new deaths announced by state officials Wednesday were residents of long-term care facilities.

Persichillii said for the total number of COVID-19 related deaths, 59-percent were male, and 41 percent were female. One percent of total COVID-19 deaths were under 30, four percent were between the ages of 30 to 49, 17 percent were between the ages of 50 and 64, 33 percent were between the ages of 65 and 79, and 44 percent were over 80. Sixty-one percent were white, 22 percent were black, six percent were Asian, one percent were “other” and 11 percent of the deaths are still being reviewed.

“For all of you, one of the best ways we can honor those we have lost is to do our part to slow the spread of COVID-19 bt staying home,” Persichilli said. “By staying home you can actually save lives.”

Murphy thanked Wawa for donating refrigerated trucks to the state to be used as morgues for people who have died from COVID-19. The morgue and funeral homes in Bergen County are overwhelmed and a Wawa truck is being deployed there, he said.

A total of 7,026 patients in hospitals across the state have COVID-19 or are under investigation because of symptoms, and 22 percent of those patients are on ventilators. She said 1,617 patients are in critical care, and 1,576 of those patients are on ventilators. “That means 97 percent of the patients in critical care require a ventilator,” Persichilli said. “We need ventilators.”

The state has received 94,525 COVID-19 test results total so far, and 41,550 have been positive, for a positivity rate of 44 percent.

Murphy, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, and other officials toured the Edison Field Medical Station at the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center on Wednesday morning. The field hospital has 500 beds and is slated to open Saturday. The field medical stations will support regional hospitals by housing low-acuity surgical patients who can’t be discharged yet. Initially, the field hospitals will be for non-COVID patients, officials said. Critical patients, pregnant patients, and pediatric patients will not be sent to field hospitals.

Hospitals in the state have increased potential bed capacity by about 60 percent and continue to explore other creative solutions for expanding further, Murphy said. Hunterdon Medical Center, for example, has increased its bed capacity from 178 beds to 366 beds.

The state needs COBOL programmers to help manage some state agency websites, including the New Jersey Department of Labor website. Professionals can sign up at covid19.nj.gov/tech.

The statewide testing site at Bergen County Community College in Paramus will be open on Thursday. The Holmdel site will be closed. New Jersey residents must show identification and have symptoms of COVID-19.

Senator Corey Booker and Governor Phil Murphy listen to NJ State Police Commander Marc Pellegrino describe the new facility as they tour the Edison Field Medical Station at the NJ Convention and Exposition Center on April 8, 2020. The Exposition Center was converted into a makeshift hospital to handle a possible overflow of patients due to the stress on healthcare facilities due to the spread of COVID-19. Press pool photo by Chris Pedota of northjersey.com.