July 1, 2020

NJ, Princeton Travel the Bumpy Road Back

By Donald Gilpin

Now in the third week of Phase 2 locally and statewide, progress in flattening the COVID-19 curve is evident. Announcements of new openings and the lifting of restrictions appear daily, but “The Road Back,” Gov. Phil Murphy’s plan for combating the pandemic and returning to “normal,” is not all smooth traveling.

Though coronavirus cases have surged elsewhere in the country and 16 states — mostly in the South and West — are on New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut’s list calling for a 14-day quarantine for visitors, active case numbers in New Jersey have fallen significantly since their peak in April. And, with state testing expanded, new cases have remained flat for several weeks.

The statistics in Princeton look even more favorable than those statewide, with the Princeton Health Department reporting on Monday only three new cases in the past week and 10 in the past two weeks, compared to totals four times that high in late April and early May.  The current two-week average is 0.36 cases per day, down from 3.29 per day two months ago. Princeton reported 33 active cases Monday, with 132 recovered, 18 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, and 12 additional probable COVID-19 deaths.

The challenges ahead, however, and inevitable bumps in the “road back,” have become evident in the past week.  Outdoor dining and indoor, non-essential retail opened two weeks ago; outdoor pools (Community Park pool is set to open July 13), barber shops, hair salons, and other personal care service facilities were permitted to open last week; and indoor shopping malls and state Motor Vehicle Commission inspections are open this week.

Looking forward to the July 4th holiday weekend, Atlantic City casinos, amusement parks, water parks, boardwalk rides, arcades, and playgrounds are all scheduled to reopen on Thursday, with social distancing restrictions and capacity limits.

On Monday, June 29, however, Murphy stepped on the brakes, announcing that
the return of indoor dining, originally scheduled for July 2, would be postponed indefinitely. Citing certain out-of-control restaurants and bars, and “knucklehead” crowds, particularly in several beach towns, Murphy cautioned, “We’ve always said that we would not hesitate to hit pause if needed to safeguard public health. This is one of those times.”

Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, in a June 26 letter to the community, emphasized the importance of continuing “to do what you’ve done so successfully to keep yourself and your family safe. Wear your mask, keep your distance, wash your hands, and support one another.”

Princeton Health Officer Jeff Grosser described a change in the ongoing pandemic battle, as the Health Department works with local businesses and others to help them in reopening safely in accordance with the executive orders. 

“Our pandemic response has certainly shifted gears from disease investigation to executive order interpretation and execution,” he wrote in a June 29 email. “Not to say we are not investigating COVID cases and that it is not in our community, but we are seeing only a fraction of what we were seeing at our height of new cases back in late April, early May. And now there is countless data and lessons learned from around the country of places where relaxing social distancing and facial covering use, and reopening of congregate type settings have been leading to increases in confirmed COVID cases.”

Grosser went on to point out data indicating the importance of wearing masks, with states that mandate mask use in public reporting a 25 percent decrease in virus outbreaks over the past two weeks,  states requiring mask use for employees and patrons of businesses showing a 12 percent decrease, states that require mask use only for employees reporting a 70 percent increase, and states with no statewide mandatory mask policy posting an 84 percent increase. 

Grosser outlined the plan going forward. “Princeton has been working on what happens next,” he said. With case counts and hospitalizations down and public places reopening the Princeton Health Department is keeping the lessons of the past four months in mind as it works with the town “to ensure the public continues to be protected,” Grosser said, “all the while maintaining a close watch on our local cases and where those individuals are contracting COVID-19.”

He continued, “It will not be a single task (i.e. wearing a mask, proper social distancing, staying home when sick, washing your hands, etc.) but a congruent network of these actions taken by individuals in order to maintain the course in our fight against COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.”

One of the greatest challenges, only two months away on the road ahead, will be the opening of schools in the fall.  Last Friday, June 26, Murphy announced that New Jersey’s schools will be open for in-person instruction in the fall, as long as COVID-19 trends don’t worsen. 

During his Friday press briefing, joined by New Jersey Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet, Murphy presented some guidelines for schools looking to prepare what may be a hybrid program of online and in-person education in the 2020-2021 school year. 

Repollet emphasized the flexibility of the reopening plan, which is presented in a 104-page guidance document.  There are more questions than answers for schools to contend with as they prepare to open in the coming months.

Princeton Public Schools (PPS) has established a Re-entry Leadership Team of nearly 30 administrators, teachers, support staff, and board members who are considering those questions with a primary focus on health.  “Schools will look very different in the fall,” wrote PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane, adding that the roadmap for reopening PPS schools would be appearing on the district website later this summer.

On Thursday, July 2, Princeton University will be announcing its plans for the fall term — with education either online, in-person, a combination, or something else, with additional details coming later in the month.