COVID Numbers Rise, Halloween Approaches
By Donald Gilpin
As new case numbers rise and schools open and shut, the Princeton Health Department notes that large and small private social gatherings where little or no COVID-19 mitigation measures are in place are major contributors to the upswing in infections.
“The irony here is that in-person learning in schools, returning to work, and indoor dining, likely because of the controls in place, are not major sources of COVID-19 infections,” said Princeton Press and Media Communications Director Fred Williams.
With Halloween coming on Saturday, Princeton police officials are urging the community to follow state and local COVID guidance, particularly in restricting indoor and outdoor gatherings. In past years, Williams noted, Franklin, Moore, and Jefferson Streets and the Ettl Farm community have seen hundreds of visitors on Halloween.
“There are no approved permits for any Halloween-related block parties or authorized street closures scheduled for mischief night or Halloween,” said Williams. “Additional police patrols and Safe Neighborhood officers have been assigned throughout the town to ensure the safety of those Princetonians celebrating Halloween.”
In their Monday, October 26 COVID-19 Update, Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert and Princeton Council warned, “Traditional door-to-door trick-or-treating, typical Halloween parties, and COVID are a scary combination.”
The New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) has issued health and safety guidelines for Halloween, strongly encouraging everyone to wear a face covering. Costume masks do not count, as they do not provide the necessary protection. The NJDOH also recommends adherence to the limits on indoor gatherings (25 people or 25 percent of a room’s capacity) and outdoor gatherings (500 people, with social distancing), and recommends that any Halloween activities be held outdoors.
According to the NJDOH website, “Those who plan to trick-or-treat should limit their groups to current household members, consider staying local, and limit the number of houses on their route,“ Further guidelines for putting out treats and other safety tips can be found at covid19.nj.gov.
On Tuesday, October 27, New Jersey reported 1,663 new COVID cases, the tenth straight day with more than 1,000 new cases and COVID hospitalizations above 900 for the second day in a row. The statewide transmission rate increased again on Tuesday to 1.26, significantly above the benchmark rate of 1 that indicates the outbreak is spreading.
“These numbers are sobering,” said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy in an announcement on social media. “We are still in the midst of a pandemic and need everyone to take this seriously. Wear a mask. Social distance. Wash your hands.”
The Princeton Health Department reported on Monday, October 26 that there were five active cases in Princeton, with five new cases in the previous week and 16 new cases in the previous two weeks.
At Johnson Park Elementary School, a student who was in school Monday and Tuesday tested positive for COVID-19 according to an email to parents and staff on Tuesday afternoon, October 27. As a precautionary measure, 13 students and four staff members associated with this student’s class and their siblings will quarantine and learn remotely until November 11. Thirty-seven additional students who were on the same bus with the infected student have also been asked to quarantine until November 11.
“It changes hour by hour,” said Princeton Public Schools Interim Superintendent Barry Galasso in describing the struggle to keep the schools open and balance health concerns with the effort to provide in-school learning, at least in a hybrid program combined with virtual instruction. “Every hour there’s another nuance. As the case numbers rise there will be more and more issues, and every case is different, unique, and individual.”
In an email letter to PPS parents and staff on Saturday, October 24, Galasso announced that two additional teachers and one student at Princeton High School (PHS) had tested positive for COVID-19 and that in-person classes at PHS would be canceled until November 9. Two of the cases apparently originated from out-of-school sports programs, Galasso said, and none of the cases originated at PHS or were transmitted at PHS.
Galasso suggested that the decision to return to remote teaching at PHS for the next two weeks was “based on the number of teachers who now must participate in precautionary 14-day quarantines or require remote teaching assignments.” He noted, “We reached a critical mass where the prudent thing was to go back to remote, but we have not had an incident of infection in school.”
In an email to parents and staff over the weekend Galasso wrote, “These decisions are never easy and we have consulted with local health officials as well as our district doctor to ensure that we are making the best decision possible. The health and safety of staff and students is our top priority and we appreciate all the efforts they have made this week to follow protocols.”
Williams added, “The Princeton Health Department and Princeton Board of Health continue to work together with our public and private school administrators.” He further pointed out that “the guidance and safety protocols being followed by our school district and our private schools are comprehensive and it is serving the schools well.” He noted that the COVID-19 cases were originating outside the schools.