Reopening indoor dining in N.J. remains too risky for coronavirus spread based on study, Murphy says

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Though New Jersey’s coronavirus numbers continue to improve five months into the state’s outbreak, Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday it remains too risky to permit indoor dining at bars and restaurants, citing a study of a restaurant outbreak in China as evidence.

“Allowing diners to sit maskless for an extended period of time in a restaurant where the air-conditioning unit could silently spread coronavirus is a risk we cannot yet take,” Murphy said during his latest coronavirus briefing in Trenton.

The governor shared a video clip from news website Vox that shows how COVID-19 spread in January at a restaurant in southern China. One infected diner at a middle table spread the virus to nine other diners at adjacent tables, including some seats as far as 14 feet away. The case was part of a study published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

“The common thread was that all of these patrons were seated in a straight line from an air conditioner,” Murphy said. “I think any of us can name any number of restaurants that we go to which have a seating arrangement and air-conditioning situation not unlike the one in this restaurant halfway around the globe.”

The governor added that air flow is “a constant concern,” which is why the state has reopened more outdoor activities than indoor ones.

Murphy made the comments shortly before announcing the state’s rate of transmission — a key figures officials are using to determine when to lift more restrictions — fell to 0.98, below the critical benchmark of 1, eight days after hitting a four-month high of 1.49.

The governor has cited the rising transmission rate as part of the reason he has not allowed more indoor activity so far.

This also comes as Murphy says the goal is for New Jersey schools — where students sit for hours in indoor spaces — to re-open to at least some in-person instruction come September.

Murphy was asked Monday if the evidence about air conditioning means indoor dining won’t return until the pandemic is over or if there are new benchmarks the state needs to hit to allow indoor dining and gyms to reopen.

The governor said he had a meeting Monday morning about “trying to piece together what indoor dining could look like, why gyms could look like.”

“I don’t accept we’re not able to get there in the absence of a vaccine or the end of the pandemic,” Murphy said.

He also denied that he’s “moving the goalposts” on what it would take to open indoor dining.

“I hope we get there. We’re not there yet,” Murphy said. “We need to see these numbers consistently and sustained down.”

Asked specifically about gyms reopening, Murphy said: “It’s something we want to get to. We want to get to it without killing anybody.”

As New Jersey’s outbreak has slowed, Murphy has gradually peeled back restrictions and businesses closings he installed in March to fight the pandemic. But the state remains in Stage 2 of reopening plan, with indoor dining, gyms, and movie theaters remaining closed until further notice.

That’s even though numerous businesses and lawmakers have called on Murphy to lift restrictions more quickly as the state’s economy suffers. Businesses have lost untold revenue, while some have permanently closed, and nearly 1.5 million workers in the state have filed for unemployment benefits since mid-March.

Numerous state and local governments have allowed limited indoor dining to resume during the pandemic. One, neighboring Pennsylvania, tightened restrictions last month as numbers rose, but two other northeastern states, Connecticut and Massachusetts, have not seen major upticks despite permitting indoor dining.

State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon tweeted Monday that Murphy’s latest stance on indoor dining is “garbage” and argued that Connecticut is handling the pandemic “well.”

Murphy allowed New Jersey restaurants to begin offering outdoor dining in June, but he rolled back plans to allow indoor dining at 25% capacity in early July as coronavirus numbers crept up, especially in other states.

New Jersey continues to allow outdoor dining with restrictions, though Murphy threatened on Monday to shut down Jersey Shore bars that are not taking steps to require patrons to wear masks and socially distance while waiting on lines to enter establishments. He cited an NJ Advance Media report from four crowded bars on Saturday night showing long, crowded lines.

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New Jersey on Monday announced four more deaths attributed to COVID-19 and 258 more positive tests,.

Those numbers are down significantly since peaking in mid-April, when state officials were announcing hundreds of new deaths and thousands of new cases a day.

The Garden State has now reported 15,878 known confirmed and probable deaths related to the virus, with 185,031 known cases, in the little more than five months since the first positive test here was announced March 4.

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Brent Johnson may be reached at [email protected].

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