Municipality of Princeton declares state of emergency, institutes mask mandate as confirmed COVID cases hit record levels

The Princeton Office of Emergency Management and Mayor Mark Freda have declared a state of emergency due to the rapid spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant in the municipality. Face masks will be required in public indoor spaces.

On Jan. 10, the Princeton Health Department reported its highest new COVID-19 case numbers ever, with 287 positive cases for the previous seven days and 568 for the previous 14 days.

“Princeton’s record level of COVID-19 cases, combined with the colder weather that has driven people indoors, the spike in the demand for testing and increase in hospitalizations, has prompted us to take these appropriate steps,” said Michael Yeh, Princeton’s Director of Emergency Services.

Beginning at 5 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 13, face coverings will be required in restaurants, bars, gymnasiums, dance studios, recreation facilities, retail stores, cafes, supermarkets, convenience stores, places of worship, commercial establishments, salons, barbershops, banks, healthcare facilities, hotels, and government buildings and facilities. South Brunswick Township issued a similar mandate more than a week ago.

As part of the mask mandate, employees and patrons of businesses in Princeton must wear a face mask at all times except when actively eating or drinking, when socially distanced at least six feet apart from all others for an extended period of time, and when performing for an audience or worship service. People with a medical condition that precludes the wearing of face coverings and children under the age of three are exempt from the requirement. Establishments will be required to post signage notifying patrons of the requirement.

“Wearing masks, especially in indoor settings, is known to be an effective way of combating the spread of COVID-19 and its variants,” said Princeton Health Officer Jeff Grosser. “We need to reduce the number of new cases locally and thus, reduce the impact of COVID-19 on area hospitals and testing sites.”

The order will remain in effect until Jan. 31, unless modified or extended by further order.


  1. It would be rather helpful if the POEM made it clear that cloth face coverings are nearly useless, against Omicron, for any sustained indoor activity. N95 or KN95 masks effectively lowers risk if worn full time, but even in a restaurant sitting, removing either to “actively eat” is really going to defeat the purpose. A cloth mask in a restaurant, e.g. choosing fashion over function, is probably little to no protective value. More specific guidance from health authorities would be far more helpful.

    1. Very simply Frank. Liberty and what your definition of legal is, stops when you’re endangering a person’s life, including the lives of our nurses, MD’s and hospital staff, that especially the party that for yearns stressed moral and family values seems to not care about.

  2. Kudos to Mayor Freda, Emergency Mgr Yeh, and Health Officer Grosser for doing this. Princeton now joins many other NJ municipalities that have mask requirements in public places. On a personal note, the day before Christmas I went to pick up take out food from a local restaurant. All the employees and 8-10 other people waiting to pick up food, in a small space, all had masks on due to the highly contagious omicron variant. All except for one very inconsiderate family that stood right in front of the pickup table unmasked. Shame on them! This municipal requirement will give store and restaurant owners firmer ground to ask unmasked patrons to mask up.

  3. If people can’t afford KN95 masks, where can families get them for free in Princeton? For social justice reasons since all families should be treated fairly so they are not shamed in public. There should be at least three mask dispensaries located around town for equal distribution accessible by walking or public transportation for everyone’s safety!

    1. I agree. What does our Health Director and public safety person, Jeff Grosser, say about this public health equity issue?

  4. The NJ state mask mandate has not changed. If you do not want to wear a mask, Princeton can not legally tell you to do so. This is guidance, not a requirement.

    1. I beg to differ, Sam. Not only did our Municipal Attorney check this out, but something like 15 or more NJ municipalities have similar local mandates….. from small towns to cities like Newark.

  5. Mike J – your suggestion is an empathic one, and a normal one, given this emergency. However, it won’t happen because it runs counter to the kind of capitalist system we have, which primarily is about making large to enormous profits. If you do something humanistic in this current society, either you’re running for political officer or you need it for your resume. No problem debating bringing cannabis store into Princeton, as controversial as it is, because it will make money for the town. No problem putting in lots of amenities for tourists, because it brings in revenue.
    As we can see from parking problems to the chain stores and boutiques- the town is not interested in its residents, and surely not whatever is left of the middle class and those from low socio economic.
    Liberal is great, except when it means doing something. Check out the difference when you walk down the streets of Hopewell vs Princeton. Hopewell less arrogant, and more of a community feeling. You can’t even know the names of the shopkeepers in Princeton because the rents are so high, stores come and go, like the wind.
    In today’s capitalism, it’s each person for themselves.

    1. Yea, there goes Capitalism again, lifting more people out of poverty than any other form of government in history and creating the highest standard of living in the world.

  6. I agree 100% with the mask mandate for our town.better late then never. That said I do hope the town leadership has learned a lesson from this round of Covid, “lead” not follow should be the rule it would have saved us the pain of now living with this latest explosion of cases and exposing more of our community from potential exposure. The town leadership has a responsibility to its residents not only to the business community in town. The health of all of us helps the business community as much as it helps us. Start to “lead”

  7. A good decision, albeit a bit late. I’m frustrated by the schools not allowing virtual learning for students with symptoms (and still waiting for a test result) or students with a family member already sick. Virtual learning is only offered to those with positive tests, which is ridiculous given the huge number of false negative rapid tests and the long wait time for testing.
    What happens is that by the time a PCR test confirms Covid for one, the whole family is already probably sick. And the kids keep going to school, eating at the cafeteria, riding the bus, etc. Common sense would keep them home, right? And available technology would prevent them from getting behind on school work, you’d think. Wrong, no virtual learning for common sense and keeping others safe.
    I wonder how many years of a pandemic do we need to learn to be flexible and proactive?

    1. If your kid is sick keep them home. If a family member is believed to have COVID then that person needs to isolate from the rest in the household. The information is available on the district website including what to do if exposed to a household member with Covid.

      I must say this entire situation is incredibly frustrating. The town should have required masks weeks ago. We knew this wave was coming before Thanksgiving.

      My family stayed home and didn’t see family over winter break. Princeton offers preschool to some 3-4 year olds so many children are still not vaccinated or fully-vaccinated yet. People were traveling and seeing others inside without masks then not quarantining or receiving a negative PCR test before sending their kids back to school.

      PPS could have had the lab that performs weekly testing in schools conduct PCR tests before the start of school and required a negative test to return.

  8. Why people don’t like following orders to help others are beyond me, we are in a country where we can be whatever we want to be, just can’t be kind to each other by following state orders to help each other.

  9. I know you are tired of hearing about the pandemic. Many are offering a comforting narrative that COVID-19 has “become endemic,” that omicron is “just a cold,” or that “letting it rip” builds immunity in the population. But this will not be the last surge. Uncontrolled spread provides ample opportunity for mutation, and variants which display considerable immune escape can cause severe disruptions to the safe and proper functioning of our society despite vaccinations and prior exposure.

    We must act decisively to prevent the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant within the University community, the town of Princeton, and Mercer County by implementing layered mitigation measures recommended by public health experts, and in particular, an N95 indoor mask mandate.

    Our society is in crisis. More people are currently hospitalized due to COVID-19 than at any point since March 2020. Healthcare workers are ringing the alarm bells. Hospitals in hundreds of U.S. counties are at capacity, and hundreds more, including in Mercer County, are forecasted to exceed capacity. One study suggests viral load peaks three to six days after diagnosis, which means shortened quarantine periods — reduced from 10 to five days — may be facilitating spread.

    Without a robust testing infrastructure, we are left to estimate case rates, which, according to some national projections, peaked at six million per day. It remains unclear how many people, including members of our community who test positive, will suffer from post-acute sequelae of COVID-19, or “long COVID,” the persistence and severity of which we know worryingly little about.

    With this in mind, we ought to consider the strategy declared by University administrators at the undergraduate town hall on Jan. 5 as little more than wishful thinking. One official suggested we should find comfort in omicron’s supposed mildness. Another reassured students that obsolete masking regulations that permit cloth masks would be sufficient to re-establish the campus “bubble” in the face of the extremely transmissible omicron variant.

    Instead of implementing updated recommendations to prevent community transmission, University administrators are hoping that outdated guidance will be enough to prevent you from getting sick, and that if you do, it will only be “mild.” Such a policy shows little concern for how immunocompromised community members — our friends, professors, and loved ones — will fare under this public health disaster.

    Despite the grim circumstances, we are not helpless. A growing number of epidemiologists, infectious disease experts, and columnists insist that the public should be provided with N95 masks to check the spread of the omicron variant. Cloth masks were never sufficient, and even with a suboptimal fit, N95s are better at preventing transmission than surgical masks. Institutions such as Milwaukee and Salt Lake County as well as the University of Southern California have already mandated the use of authentic N95 or equivalent masks. The University must follow and provide these free of cost until the end of the pandemic to all students, faculty, staff, and their families, including children.

    Nor can we fail to consider the health of our neighbors. The municipality of Princeton set a record for the highest seven-day number of cases at 263 during the first week of January. Mercer County’s percentage change in reported cases over the past 14 days tripled; a high test positivity rate indicates that this figure is an underestimate. To safeguard our collective well-being, the University must take the additional step of distributing N95s to the broader Princeton community and ensuring consistent and equitable access to this resource. It can certainly afford to do so.

    Though N95 masks were reserved for healthcare workers during a shortage in early 2020, production has since ramped up. You may have heard that N95s are uncomfortable to wear—however, there are various models, with many of them designed for comfort. These masks can safely be reused if worn in at least a three-day rotation, i.e., one mask for Monday, a second for Tuesday, a third for Wednesday, after which you may begin the rotation again. The widespread adoption of N95s during this surge, alongside existing mitigation measures, is critical to avoid an uncontrolled increase in cases as students return to campus.

    Wishful thinking will not get us out of this crisis — wishful thinking is the crisis. The situation is dire, but if we act with urgency, we can take reasonable and measured steps to limit the damage and ensure a safe and healthy campus for all. Add your name to this petition to demand that the University provide all members of its community and our neighbors with N95 or equivalent masks as part of a layered mitigation strategy to prevent community transmission of the omicron variant.

Comments are closed.