July 15, 2020

No New COVID Cases in the Past 2.5 Weeks; Health Dept., Business Community Plan Ahead

By Donald Gilpin

No new cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Princeton over the past two and a half weeks, as the town continues to focus on opening up in the most effective ways without jeopardizing the safety of residents and visitors. The state has also succeeded in maintaining relatively stable numbers of new cases, deaths, and hospitalizations in recent weeks, with the numbers having fallen significantly from their peaks in April.

“We are working hard to maintain our lower incidence but must remind ourselves that we arrived at this place of lower incidence in large part because of massive changes to our daily lives of social distancing, masking, and being mindful of our own health,” said Princeton Health Officer Jeff Grosser.

Grosser warned of possible dangers in the coming weeks. “New Jersey is one of just a couple of states that continue to see lower and lower daily incidence rates,” he said. “Unfortunately New Jersey is beginning to see an increase in younger adults testing positive for COVID-19, mainly attributed to social gatherings and, specifically, beach-related activity.”

He added, “At the Princeton Health Department we are monitoring nationwide and global incidence of COVID-19, and unfortunately there is exponential growth in a number of states.”

Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros commented on the increasing pace of activity in downtown Princeton as outdoor dining flourishes and more people visit local restaurants and businesses.  “We have reimagined our restaurant dining spaces, which has helped them to reopen and offer a new experience for patrons,” she said. “So much feedback has been positive on how this could in years to come be an ongoing warm weather option.  We also hear that this is having a positive impact on the neighboring retailers, bringing patrons back in, safely, to their stores and salons.”

She went on to highlight the launch of a grant program for businesses sponsored by the Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber Foundation and a donation of $250,000 from Princeton University.  “These grants are targeted to help our store front services, retail, and restaurants with expenses they are incurring as a direct result of the COVID-19 crisis,” she said. “We hope that the Princeton Small Business Resiliency Fund (princetonresiliencyfund.org) will also raise additional funds and meet the University challenge of matching $100,000 in funds, with the overall goal of raising $450,000 or more to help our local businesses.”

This is the first week since early May that there have been no new re-openings announced by the state, and New Jersey remains in Stage 2 of “the road back” with no date set for the opening of indoor dining (originally planned for July 3, but put on pause), bars, gyms, or movies.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s July 8 executive order requires face coverings outdoors wherever social distancing is difficult to achieve, and, according to Monday’s Princeton COVID-19 update from the mayor and Princeton Council, this includes Nassau Street, Palmer Square, Witherspoon Street, and other high-traffic areas in the central business district.  (There are exceptions for individuals under 2 years old, eating or drinking at an outdoor restaurant, or when wearing a mask would inhibit health or safety.)

In urging mask wearing and social distancing, the Princeton COVID-19 update noted that young people in New Jersey are now the fastest growing group of individuals who are testing positive for COVID-19.

Community Park Pool opened on Monday, and Murphy has lifted the 50 percent capacity limits on NJ Transit and private-carrier buses, trains, light rail vehicles, and Access Link vehicles.  Face coverings have been required for months on all trains and buses and are now required in all NJ Transit and other indoor stations.

There are currently 22 states, all coronavirus hot spots, on New Jersey’s quarantine list, which is a joint advisory with New York and Connecticut. Travelers from those 22 states, including residents returning home from a trip, are expected to voluntarily quarantine for 14 days.

Murphy pointed out that the rate of transmission in New Jersey has moved below one (0.91 on Monday and Tuesday), meaning that on average every newly infected resident is passing COVID-19 to fewer than one other person. The spread is being kept in check.

Locally, Grosser noted that the Princeton Health Department has been working closely with area schools, Mercer County superintendents, and heads of private and charter schools to plan for the September opening of schools in compliance with New Jersey Department of Education guidance. 

He emphasized the complexity of the challenges. “The question of how does a school maintain in-person instruction if a positive case or symptomatic individual is identified is just one of the many situations that needs to be outlined in some form of decision-making matrix,” he said.

The business community also faces a number of challenges, Lambros noted. “Looking ahead to what the rest of the year and beyond will bring, we need to prepare for the long-term impact,” she said. “We know we need good planning to devise strategies to help the impact on our businesses, continue to find ways to help businesses keep their doors open, and encourage a shop-local, buy-local strategy for our local residents to support these businesses.”

She continued, “We need to address better parking solutions for both out-of-town visitors and employees, encourage local residents to bike and walk whenever possible, and invest in transit solutions that will move residents and visitors in and around all of our commercial centers.”