Insisting “we’re not there yet,” Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday that New Jersey will still require all people — vaccinated or not — to wear masks indoors in public to protect against the coronavirus, even after federal health officials released updated guidance that says masks are no longer needed for fully vaccinated Americans in most circumstances.
But those who are fully vaccinated in the Garden State no longer need to wear a mask outside, Murphy said. Those who aren’t vaccinated still need to wear masks when in “close proximity” to others, he said.
Murphy also stressed that this is a temporary situation, saying mask orders could change in the coming weeks.
“With all respect to the CDC, we have made extraordinary progress,” the Democratic governor told reporters during a public event tin East Orange with Whoopi Goldberg to boost vaccination efforts.
Murphy noted how the state last month had the highest infection, hospitalization, and death rates in the country to seeing numbers drop dramatically over the last couple of weeks.
“And a big part of that reason is that folks are getting vaccinated and folks are doing the right thing,” he said. “And so as far as we can tell and as much as we want to get there — and we will get there, as it relates to indoor masking, it’s only a matter of time — if you’re in a business and a public setting, we’re not there yet. We’re frankly not there yet.”
But Murphy added the state could be there “within a matter of weeks.”
The governor did say the CDC’s guidance is “further validation that if you’re vaccinated, you’re in a completely different category” when it comes to wearing masks.
New Jersey — an early coronavirus hotspot and home to the most COVID-19 deaths per capita in the U.S. — has required people to wear masks indoors in public since last April. People have been required to wear masks outside only when social distancing isn’t possible since July.
The new CDC guidelines say “fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.”
A person is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after getting the second Pfizer or Moderna shot or two weeks after receiving the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The CDC still calls for fully vaccinated Americans to wear masks in crowded indoor settings, such as buses, planes, hospitals, prisons, and homeless shelters. Plus, people who are immune-compromised are encouraged to speak with doctors before dropping masks. Officials also noted that some business settings may still require masks, especially since some workers may remain unvaccinated. And they said unvaccinated people should still wear masks indoors in public.
The CDC’s new guidelines are recommendations. States and businesses impose their own masking rules.
Republicans are already bashing Murphy, who has frequently followed or cited CDC guidance before.
”For a guy who claimed early on that he’d be guided at every step by science, Governor Murphy seems more driven by politics,” state Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Passaic, said. “He is quick to crack down, but when the science tells us otherwise, he wants time to think about it.”
State Assemblyman Kevin Rooney, R-Bergen, called it “blatant hypocrisy.”
“Murphy claims to be relying on the science, yet in the same breath, he ignores the science from the CDC, an actual scientific authority, to make his own decisions,” Rooney said.
In all, 25 states have loosened indoor and outdoor mask restrictions since the CDC’s announcement.
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont — like Murphy, a Democrat — said Thursday his state will begin following the CDC’s guidance May 19, the sam day other restrictions are lifted. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, another Democrat, said his state is still reviewing the guidance.
The CDC cited three studies that show vaccines work. That includes one from Israel, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, that found the vaccine was 97% effective against symptomatic COVID-19 and 86% effective against asymptomatic infection in more than 5,000 health care workers.
Still, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, told CNN on Thursday that if states do drop mask mandates, “you might have an increase in infection among those who are not vaccinated.”
“That’s the kind of dicey situation you’re in when you’re trying to deal with policy at the local level,” Fauci said.
The CDC’s update just days before New Jersey is set to take a number of large steps to ease coronavirus restrictions Wednesday, including ending outdoor gathering limits and removing fixed, percentage-based indoor capacity limits for restaurants, gyms, retail stores, churches, and more. But under Murphy’s order, those establishments must still keep patrons and parties 6 feet away from each other, and people will still be required to wear masks indoors.
Murphy has said the 6-foot caveat is based on CDC recommendations and he’d be willing to change it if the agency alters its guidance.
New Jersey’s COVID-19 numbers have been improving dramatically as vaccinations continue.
More than 3.57 million people who live, work, or study in the state have now been fully vaccinated against the virus at New Jersey sites, while another 164,121 residents have been vaccinated in other states.
The state has set a goal of having 70% of New Jersey’s adults vaccinated by the end of June. A little more than half of the state’s 6.9 million adults have now been fully vaccinated.
New Jersey’s seven-day average for new confirmed positive COVID-19 tests has fallen to 869 — down 34% from a week ago and 69% from a month ago. That’s the lowest number since Oct. 17.
Meanwhile, there were 966 COVID-19 patients hospitalized across the state as of Wednesday night — the first time that number was below 1,000 since Oct. 26.
Still, the state is seeking to ramp up vaccinations now that demand has decreased and many large municipalities — many with large minority populations — have vaccination rates under 40%.
Murphy appeared alongside actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg — a West Orange resident — during a vaccination drive Friday at a ShopRite in East Orange.
New Jersey, a state of 9.2 million residents, has reported 25,906 residents have died from complications related to COVID-19 — including 23,258 confirmed deaths and 2,648 fatalities considered probable.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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