The argument — making the case to reopen New Jersey’s economy on a county-by-county basis — is easy to understand.
“If the data shows that Cumberland County has low levels of COVID activity, I (would) hate to see mom-and-pop shops suffering under continued restrictions because Bergen County has an outbreak,” one person said.
The surprise is not that it was said — and said in a public forum —but that it came from state Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Ocean Twp.), one of the leading Democrats in the state.
Gopal, speaking to manufacturing leaders during the state-of-the-state event held by the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program last Thursday, showed a willingness to criticize the efforts of Gov. Phil Murphy — who has shown some willingness to use a scalpel approach on hot spots but has generally mandated one-rule-fits-all approach since the start of the pandemic.
Gopal told manufacturers, who are on the list of essential businesses, that more help could be on the way for the business community as a whole.
Senate bill S3093, which would encourage a county-by-county opening, was passed by the Senate and heads for a vote in the General Assembly on Monday. It is expected to pass.
The bipartisan bill was sponsored by Gopal and 10 others in the Senate, including fellow Democrats Steve Sweeney (West Deptford), the Senate president; Troy Singleton (Moorestown); and Dawn Addiego (Medford).
The bill would direct the governor to develop and implement a county-based mitigation plan to allow businesses to operate during a pandemic. Here’s how it would work.
Using empirical data over a seven-day rolling average, the bill said the state should establish three categories:
- Red: Active outbreak or high risk of an outbreak;
- Yellow: Moderate risk of an outbreak;
- Green: Low risk of an outbreak.
Once these categories are established, the governor would assign one of the categories to each of the state’s 21 counties and 565 municipalities. Counties with low densities would be given a countywide designation. Counties with high densities would be given ratings based on municipalities.
Areas assigned to a category higher than green would not be reassigned to a lesser category without a three-week evaluation of the area’s empirical data to determine its progress.
Is the idea perfect? Of course not. But it would give the business community something it has been asking for since last summer: A true roadmap to return.
Gopal said he has heard that request repeatedly.
“The challenge we’ve had the last six months — and the greatest criticism I’ve had — is that there were no benchmarks or timelines on where we were going to go,” he told the manufacturers. “And, if you’re a business owner, that’s extremely hard, extremely frustrating.”
Regulations around reopening continue to be a tough discussion nationwide — even with the number of cases going down and the number of vaccines going up, with a one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccination being approved just this weekend.
“Things are tenuous,” she said. “Now is not the time to relax restrictions.”
Officials in the Murphy administration declined the opportunity to comment about the legislation. They pointed to the governor’s previous statements on the concept.
Murphy has generally opposed regional reopenings. He rejected a request by South Jersey last May — but that, of course, was when cases were much higher. Even more, it was at a time when health care professionals were not as equipped to handle outbreaks.
The governor has relaxed some restrictions in the past month, including increasing capacity at indoor dining to 35%, allowing for fans in the stands at recreational, high school, college and, starting Tuesday, professional athletic events.
How much those moves have been made in accordance with health metrics is unclear. The governor is up for reelection this fall. And these moves are popular with residents.
Gopal said the bill is a win-win: It helps the business community, but it does not hurt public health.
“We can put public health and safety first, as we should, but we also need to plan,” he said. “We should know, ‘If our cases and our hospitalizations and our COVID rates are at this number on April 1, this is where we’re going to be there. For May 1, this is where we’re going to be.’
“The lack of planning makes it hard.”
Gopal said it’s an area where New Jersey has taken a different approach than others. Using CDC guidelines, he said, the state can adjust.
It needs to, he added.
“The state as a whole may be a long way from fully reopening — that’s why we should embrace a county-based, regional approach, rather than a one size fits all,” he said.