New Jersey’s Gov. Phil Murphy is enjoying some of the gentle treatment the political press spent months applying to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Also like Cuomo, Murphy is among the least deserving of it.
“New Jersey went from being one of the country’s worst COVID-19 hot spots to a model of how to flatten the curve,” Politico approvingly reported on Wednesday. And yet, the Garden State’s success is now threatening to reverse itself—because “the rate of spread nearly doubled in the past four weeks as keggers, house parties, and packed-to-the-gills vacation rentals became infection hubs.”
“If fresh scars of the pandemic’s darkest days and strict orders from the governor weren’t enough to keep tourists and residents from pretending 2020 was simply another raucous summer down the Jersey Shore, the future will be grim for other states that have been less aggressive,” the dispatch continued.
This is a tidy and familiar narrative. As wise experts worked, technocratic politicians struggled mightily to contain an unforeseen natural disaster. And they succeeded, briefly, before the ignorant and unruly public sacrificed this achievement. If the enlightened state of New Jersey cannot succeed, what hope do states with even less sophisticated voters have?
Only a steadfast refusal to connect the dots could lead to such a misguided conclusion about how Trenton navigated this pandemic. And while Gov. Murphy displays more humility and empathy than his counterpart in New York, he has also declined to entertain a critical review of how his behavior contributed to this crisis. Those contributions were substantial.
The Garden State exemplifies how to “flatten the curve” only if the phrase has lost all its original meaning, which may actually be the case. New Jersey leads the country in deaths per 100,000 people—proportionately exceeding even New York’s grim totals. A visualization of the rates of death in the state precisely follows the arcing parabolic trajectory health experts in March warned we would see if we did nothing at all.
From the outset of the pandemic, Trenton followed Albany’s lead, mirroring many of the policies that contributed to this horror. The non-emergency hospital visits were tacitly discouraged and elective surgeries limited, contributing to the phenomenon of “excess deaths” related but not attributable to COVID-19. Between March and May, one analysis found that more than 2,300 unexplained deaths are likely related to the measures adopted to contain this pandemic.
Like Cuomo, Murphy briefly implemented a policy that compelled long-term care facilities and nursing homes to admit residents who had likely been exposed to the virus. As of July, nearly 6,700 nursing-home residents had died as a result—a figure that constitutes about half of all of New Jersey’s COVID-related fatalities. Thousands of long-term-care workers became sick, and many died. Like Cuomo’s, Murphy’s administration blamed nursing-home owners for the scale of this disaster, but one investigation found that Murphy’s team was shockingly slow to respond to the crisis.
These facilities were deprived of personal protective equipment. Despite the risk imposed on them by the state, this equipment was reserved for hospitals alone. The New Jersey health department refused to make public the information related to deaths and infection rates in these facilities, denying the desperate petitions of residents’ family members. That agency also declined to conduct widespread testing in nursing homes—a condition Murphy revealed in mid-May would finally be addressed by late May. When asked about this oversight, the governor became defensive. “The uneven performance of this industry is jaw-dropping,” he said of the press, “and that’s as charitable as I can get.”
Murphy’s administration was not in the dark about the risks it was inviting. As audio uncovered by USA Today demonstrated, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli (who was appointed to lead a virus-related task force for the state as early as February 3) expressed her frustration with the governor’s mismanagement. “I never have the governor’s attention,” she told Health Department officials candidly. “I have never had a one-on-one with him.” As the scale of the outbreak in these facilities became apparent, prominent medical groups within the state began lobbying Murphy to dispatch the National Guard to aid in the effort—calls that went unheeded for three crucial weeks.
But though Murphy had failed his state’s seniors, this was not because the governor wasn’t busy. He spent his time imposing theatrical and imperious restrictions on everyone else. On March 21, the governor mandated that state residents stay home, indefinitely closed all nonessential businesses, and imposed a curfew. Wide-open state and county parks–one of the few exceptions to this rule—were subsequently closed and roped off on April 7. “We must continue our push to flatten it to the point where our day-over-day increase is zero,” the governor explained, expanding the rules of engagement.
State and local police were tasked with arresting curfew violators or those driving to destinations that constituted “non-essential trips.” His administration banned the state’s craft-beer industry from conducting home deliveries even while restaurants had been allowed to provide alcohol to the state’s shut-in residents—a policy that was implemented without any explanation. On April 3, the town of Lakewood broke up an Orthodox Jewish funeral for a local rabbi and charged 15 mourners with violating lockdown edicts. Pressed by Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson to explain where the authority to abridge the right to worship could be found in the Constitution, the governor explained that he “wasn’t thinking of the Bill of Rights” when he issued the order.
As the Northeast began to dig out from under the mountain of bodies the pandemic produced, the patchwork of closures and exemptions for certain businesses made less and less sense. Casinos could open, though at only at 25 percent capacity. So, too, could libraries, museums, aquariums, and private social clubs. But movie theaters, performing arts centers, gyms, and most other indoor spaces could not. This disparity makes sense only if you are the domineering sort who imagines yourself capable of judging which kinds of activities people should engage in. As vectors of possible coronavirus transmission, the distinctions between a casino and a movie theater are blurred to point that a consortium of movie theaters is presently suing the Murphy administration for discrimination.
The same could be said for gyms and fitness centers—places you can patronize across the border in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New York north of Westchester County, but not in New Jersey. Outside of major urban areas in those states, you can also partake of indoor dining—a condition that is still barred statewide in New Jersey. But that wasn’t the plan.
For weeks, restaurants were told to plan for the return of indoor dining on July 2. They called staff back from furlough, took reservations, and restocked their inventories in preparation. But on July 28, just days before the doors were supposed to open, the governor backtracked—putting the restoration of the status quo on hold for the foreseeable future. “We had planned to loosen restrictions this week,” the governor said at the time. “However, after COVID-19 spikes in other states driven by, in part, the return of indoor dining, we have decided to postpone indoor dining indefinitely.”
Indeed, at the time of this order, New Jersey’s infection rates were below the key benchmark that suggests the virus is expanding. Today, they have risen slightly over it, and the governor has begun re-imposing lockdown restrictions on New Jersey. But this benchmark isn’t so “key” if it can be ignored whenever the governor wants to close up shop again. In fact, the state’s relatively stable rates of hospitalization and death from this disease seem to have no bearing on its lockdown policy.
As of this writing, New Jersey has celebrated its 28th consecutive day with fewer than 50 new deaths related to COVID-19. This is the sixth straight day with less than 15 deaths in a state of 9 million people. And yet, the governor insists, these numbers are “still too high.” It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the state failed to act when it mattered and is now overreacting when it arguably doesn’t. This should be nobody’s “model,” Politico’s inexplicable verdict notwithstanding.